Patricia Fradenburg was born Patricia Nguyen in Hue, Vietnam. She is currently a service writer for Performance BMW in Chapel Hill.
MF: You were born in Vietnam just two years before the United States left Saigon (now officially Ho Chi Minh City).
PF: I was the youngest of eight children. I’m ten years younger than my sister, who is the second youngest member of the family. My family teases me about being an accident. I was actually born in Hue where my family had a summer house. My Vietnamese apparently still has a bit of a Hue accent.
MF: I take it the family was well off.
PF: My mother owned an apartment an apartment complex in Saigon along with a perfumery and a seedery. I still remember some of the aromas. I had a nanny. My father had ties to the French Army. After the Viet Cong took control, it made him a target.
My older sister was the first family member to leave in 1977. She now lives in California. The family left in small groups. In 1978, my father, my sister, and I attempted to escape by boat. You had to pay someone to smuggle you out on a fishing boat. The first time we tried to leave, we were caught as we were about to board the boat. All these lights came on and sister and I were put in a prison cell. I was five and my sister was probably in her early 20’s. We got a ration of rice and water each day and nothing else. I don’t remember even being able to go outside to play. We were there for at least two months. My father was sent to a separate concentration camp.
One of my strongest memories from that time is my sister twisting a bit of my hair and tickling my ear with it to get me to laugh. We were stuck inside a concrete room and she just wanted to hear laughter. Eventually, we were sent home. We escaped the second time about a year later. It was my father, my sister, and her then fiance, who later became my brother-in-law. My mother stayed behind to look after the apartment complex.
MF: A lot of people assume that after the fall of Saigon that the Viet Cong simply took over the country.
PF: It actually took a few years before they took full control. I never saw my mother again. It was some time before my parents could even exchange letters. They wrote regularly once we made it to the United States until my mother passed away from breast cancer in 1985. I think of it as my family’s great love story: all those years apart and they stayed devoted to one another. My father died from liver cancer in 1989.
MF: So, this second escape attempt succeeded.
PF: We took a bunch of gold with us and hid it on our bodies. You had to hide anything you had. We were on a fishing boat, more or less the size of a shrimp boat, and I had to stay below deck. There was no space to move around. I was six. I remember sitting on the bow and having water drip on my head from the deck above; it still bugs me to sit in the shower.
One time, I got to go on deck in the middle of the night. I still recall how serene the ocean was even though I was scared of falling over the side, yet it was so beautiful out there. To this day, I have an issue with being near the ocean at night.
We were on the boat for three days. As part of our fee, we were fed a bowl of rice and sausage. Just before we got to land, our boat was stopped by pirates. Yes, there is such as thing as pirates. They collected a fee from each of the passengers to let us land.
MF: You landed in Thailand?
PF: Yes, we stayed in a refugee camp there for eight months. It was basically a bunch of huts with bamboo floors. There was a bamboo bridge on stilts to the bathroom stalls which were nothing more than holes in the floor over the ocean. People would fish and bathe on the other side of the stalls. My father and his friends would joke, “Don’t eat the catfish!”
On the good side, there were lots of other families there and I had plenty of other kids there to play with.
MF: Did you know anyone in the camp from before?
PF: No. The whole time we were there, we had no way to get word to my mother. My sister still stays in touch with someone she met in the camp who now lives in Falls Church, Virginia.
We eventually got our names in the registry of refugees and my sister who was in California found us. She did the paperwork to get us sponsored by a Catholic Church in Dallas, Texas.
MF: Do you have any positive memories of your time in the camp?
PF: Yes, UNICEF came once a week. I had a blue cup and we would run down the hill to get what I called a “Lulu” cracker (butter cookie) and a cup of hot milk. We’d have to wait a few minutes, but I was never late getting there.
MF: You were sponsored by the Catholic Church to come to America. Was your family Christian?
PF: No, my family was Buddhist.
MF: So, you got to Dallas.
PF: Actually, the four of us started out in an apartment in Arlington and we were given green cards. My father got a job cleaning airplanes for Delta Airlines. Another family helped drive him to work. He spoke no English and neither did I. Before my first day of kindergarten, my father told me to raise my hand if I needed to go to the bathroom; that’s all I knew.
My sister was the first family member to learn English. I have to say the ESL program at my school was fantastic and I also learned a lot from watching Sesame St. and Mr. Rogers.
My sister who was already over here moved to Dallas. There was a family who we called “cousins” from my mother’s side in Irving, who were more established than we were. We’d go to their house for dinners and New Year’s. They had a daughter my age.
MF: Were there any other adjustments?
PF: The first time I saw a toilet, I tried to stand on top of it to pee. The “cousin” had to explain it to me. I was the only Vietnamese in my school, so I got teased a lot. My Vietnamese name is Phoung Tien. The kids called me Rin Tin Tin, Fongy Wongy, 1-2-3-Tien. They didn’t make fun of anyone else’s name.
MF: Who were your first friends in America?
PF: The first ones I remember were in Grand Prairie, Texas. I was in 5th grade and 12 years old, because I didn’t start school until I was 7. Becky Brown was our neighbor and my first friend. Her family had a pool.
Grand Prairie was the first house my family owned here. My father, brother-in-law, and sister worked and saved, but there was also a settlement from Air Canada.
Once we came here, we started bringing over my other brothers and sisters. One of my brothers settled in Canada. He came to Texas to ask my father for permission to marry a woman he had met. He died in a crash on the flight back. We never sued, because my father was a Buddhist at heart. The airline paid my father a settlement anyway and that helped pay for the house and his dream car a Cadillac.
When my brother went to the airport, I wanted to stay behind to swim, but my Dad made me go. He was my favorite brother, because he listened to Abba and John Denver. He left me his album and to this day I still have them.
MF: But your mother never made it over?
PF: My parents would sometimes wait a month to six weeks for a letter, and they always wrote. My mother got breast cancer. She had a huge support group in Vietnam of cousins, former workers, and tenants. My father never looked at another woman.
The businesses were our source of money to get us out of the country. She had to stay behind to keep them going. This huge sacrifice was the bravest thing she ever did: “She knew what freedom was all about.”
After she passed away, the communists seized all our property.
MF: But you moved on from Grand Prairie.
PF: My brother-in-law had been a medical student in Vietnam. When he came to the United States, he had to start all over. He went back through med school and eventually got an internship in San Antonio, so we moved there. After that, he had a residency in Orlando, Flordia and we all moved there where he’s still an internist.
MF: I’ve noticed that you speak without an accent.
PF: I’m the only one in the family who speaks without an accent. I guess it’s because I started learning English when I very little.
MF: Do you have any San Antonio or early Orlando memories?
PF: My brother -in-law belonged to an Asian club. During Cinqo De Mayo, the club had a booth on the River Walk. We would have to make spring rolls for the booth.
In Orlando, my father opened a store that helped people send money to Vietnam, kind of like a Western Union office. My sister did a lot of the motherly things with me, but I remember that after I had my first period, it was my father who sat on the toilet with me as he tried to read the directions on a box of tampons. He had to tell me, “It’s too difficult to do; you’re going to have to use pads.”
My family was very strict and traditional. My father and sister told me that I couldn’t date ever.
MF: Did you?
PF: I went through a rebellious phase. I had boyfriends in high school who weren’t Vietnamese. For some reason, they were all named Matt. I experimented with smoking and drinking. I listend to alternative music like Depeche Mode, OMD, Erasure. I was in drama andplayed Frenchie in my high school’s production of Grease. I was nervous about my dad seeing me in a tank top on stage. I later got more into set work and lighting; I guess I always had a mechanical side.
When I was a sophomore, my father got sick with liver cancer.
MF: This wasn’t long after your mother died.
PF: That’s correct. She passed in 1989 and Dad would die in 1991.
After he got sick, I put my sleeping bag next to his room and slept in the hallway or read the Flowers in the Attic series. Most nights, he’d ask for oatmeal, one of his favorite foods. I’d get up at 3 A.M., make it for him, and we’d eat it together in the kitchen. I realized later that he’d been my father and my mother for most of my life and I was losing both. My sister was raising her own family at that point.
MF: How did you respond?
PF: I went deeper into rebellion. I wasn’t a good student and I dropped out of high school. I took a job delivering hospital supplies, moved out of the house, and moved into a one bedroom apartment with a friend who was working at Hardee’s. We had twin beds in the one bedroom and she was so tired, she’d talk in her sleep: “Welcome to Hardee’s. Can I take your order?” It was pretty funny. We’re still close friends.
My sister was more of a true “immigrant” and she didn’t understand how I could leave school. She would tell me how much harder we had to work. We barely spoke for many years after that.
MF: I guess not the sort of thing you’d want your own daughter doing, but I guess it turned out OK.
PF: I went back to high school after a few months, because I realized Dad would not have liked the way my future was going. I graduated on time, but I barely graduated.
The good thing was that I met Sean during that period.
MF: Was your family okay with Sean not being Vietnamese?
PF: This is a funny story, but before my father died he called me to his bedside to tell me: “Patricia, don’t marry a Vietnamese man. You’re too strong willed; he won’t be able to handle you.”
MF: So when you met Sean, you were taking your father’s advice after all?
PF: Basically, yeah. (smiles) All my other siblings married Vietnamese.
MF: How did you meet.
PF: We met at a club in Orlando. I lied about my age to get in and told him that I was 21. He had graduated from Ohio University and was down there to explore joining the navy and was visiting a friend. He was 24 and I was 18. He went back up to Toronto to visit friends, but we kept talking on the phone every night.
MF: Back when they used to charge by the minute for long distance calls?
PF: Yes, it was pretty expensive. I told him to come back down to Florida and we went off to try to live in Jamaica for a couple months until Jamaican immigration came looking for us. Sean called his parents and asked them to help pay for our plane fare back to New York state. That was how I met his parents. We’ve been together ever since and we’re still very close with his parents.
I got a job as a nanny up there and Sean worked in carpentry. One of the family values that never left me was that we were really hard workers.
MF: How did you get to North Carolina?
PF: Sean had a cousin in Hillsborough who convinced us that we should try things down here. We stayed with him and I got a job waiting tables at the Canton House, a Chinese restaurant. It had to be walking distance from where we were living, because we didn’t have a car yet. Sean ran a carpentry crew and he’d get rides to work. Eventually, we saved enough to buy a used Saab for 3,500 dollars. The owners let us make payments.
After that, I got a job working the front desk at the Siena Hotel in Chapel Hill. Pretty soon I was the reservation manager and was working at different boutique hotels in different parts of the country, training the staffs there. Sean started a finish carpentry business and became a contractor. We worked our butts off and bought a house at 24.
MF: So, you were successful without going to college.
PF: My sister has never made peace with it, but I never went to college. I started working in real estate for a few years. We got married in Las Vegas 1998 and we had our daughter, Mia.
MF: I imagine becoming parents changed things.
PF: I had to get out of real estate, because I was working too many weekends. It didn’t fit having a school-aged daughter. Having Mia also got me back in touch with my own heritage, because she would ask me about our family and I had to tell the stories. When Mia was born, I also got back in touch with my sister and we rekindled our relationship. I like to say that Mia brought the Vietnamese out of me again.
I’d always been “American” in my mind. It wasn’t until my early 30’s as Mia grew up that I realized that I was also trying so hard to be not-Vietnamese.
After I got out of real estate, I worked as a mortgage broker. I happened to get out in 2007, so the timing was very fortunate.
MF: How did you wind up doing service orders for BMW?
PF: Sean and I always had a fascination with cars. We got into off-roading and started buying Land Rovers. We’d drive to Utah and Colorado with Mia in the child seat to go on these long camping adventures. We opened up a repair shop for Land Rovers. Having a child and a house, we decided the business was too up and down: we’d had too many sleepless nights. Sean suggested that I learn to write up service orders. I spent six months working on cars in our shop, so I could know enough to do service orders. After we closed the shop, an opening came up at Performance BMW. I’m proud to say that my team and I have won two Chairman’s Club awards (a national honor for the top five service writers in the country) and I’ve been there ever since. Sean went back into the finish carpentry business.
MF: I wanted to get back to your reconnecting with your roots.
PF: I had gotten in touch with my sister, at least partly because I was curious about my nephews.
Sean was always interested in Asian things. He was the one who had an interest in Buddhism and he was the one who got me to try sushi. Sean and Mia are the ones who like the more exotic Vietnamese foods like frog, fetal duck eggs, and fried bugs. I’ve gone from ignoring it to being very proud of it. I have to say, much of that was because of Mia. I even wound up presenting at her school about my family’s story.
MF: Mia’s currently a sophomore at UNC and is libero for the school’s nationally ranked volleyball team. (She was the MVP of the state high school volleyball tournament for Cardinal Gibbons). Had Sean and you played volleyball?
PF: No, not at all. When she was 12, she had two friends who were going to a clinic at Triangle Volleyball Club. I made her go and she fought it the whole way. At the end of the clinic, she wanted to play volleyball all the time. She used to pass the ball against the wall at our Land Rover service shop. We set up a space for her to practice her serves.
MF: I understand that she’s also a very good student.
PF: She’s planning to go to graduate school in Public Health. I think she takes after Sean. They have the same photographic memory. She’s very driven both academically and in her sport. It’s interesting how things turn out.
MF: I meant to ask if you’ve been back to Vietnam?
PF: My sister in Orlando goes back every year. Five years ago, she brought my Dad’s ashes to Hue where our mother is buried. We’re planning to go back soon, but I’ve still not been back. I want to visit Hue, honor my parents’ grave, and have Sean and Mia see where I came from.
Honestly, I’m a little nervous about it. The Vietnamese who stayed often look down on those of us who left and I’m a little afraid of the officials there. I was even a little uncomfortable seeing the Vietnam War Memorial in D.C. It’s hard to put into words, but my memories and feelings about all of it are still very complex.
Do you have a story to tell? We’re looking for personal stories and family stories for any Asians living with ties to the Triangle. If you have a story to tell, contact us!