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SNAPSHOTS

Vietnamese refugee finds balance between two worlds at Caltech.

March 30, 1989|SYBIL BAKER | Baker is a free-lancer who lives in Los Angeles

It's like a trip to the middle of the country in the middle of the century. Andy Hardyville. On this Pasadena block, old oaks and camphor trees arch into a canopy of green lace over the street; front yards are fragrant with flower beds bordering the squares of new mint-green grass.

The apartment is decorated in Early Student. Poster of a bathing beauty. A license plate tacked on the wall. The TV is on. The MTV channel--what else? The occupant is a student, as a matter of fact, a sophomore at Caltech in Pasadena. He will be 21 in June. True to the code, he wears acid jeans.

But when Tan Pham speaks (both first and last names have the same vowel sound as calm) his views are hardly mainstream American. He doesn't care if he ever makes a lot of money, he says.

That "money seems to be everything these days" can get on his nerves, he says, and so do "people who fall for money; who will do anything for money." He says he has had some friends who have done that.

His apartment is on the second floor. And from a visitor's vantage point, the nerves he refers to are about as apparent as a ladybug would be on the lawn below. Pham radiates a sunny serenity. "I can be very nasty," he insists merrily. "I can lose my temper." Then he feels compelled to add: "For a few seconds."

Pham spent his first 13 years in Vietnam. "My family was well-educated, and wanted me to leave to get a better education," he says, and staying in Vietnam would have meant joining the army at 18.

His parents arranged for him to escape through a leader who organized the venture and was paid accordingly. "My parents didn't tell me until the day I was supposed to leave," to make sure he wouldn't inadvertently betray the plan.

He has no trouble recalling his reaction to the news: "I just wanted to go."

For 11 days, the boy sat in a boat with 21 other people. Studying the dimensions of his modest apartment for a moment, he says the boat was about the width of the living room, and perhaps as long as the living room plus the kitchen.

"We ran out of food a few times. But fortunately, we met some fishing boats, and they gave us some food." Reading of the ordeals of other boat people makes him realize how much worse it could have been. "When people have to kill each other--I never experienced that kind of thing."

Pham and his fellow refugees landed in Macao, across the bay from Hong Kong. And then the homesickness finally hit him, as a nine-month stay in a refugee camp began.

A cousin in Hawaii sponsored Pham's entry into the United States, which led to another four months in a camp in the Philippines that was designed to prepare refugees for life here. "They taught us English." He looks doubtful. "Well, not much," he says.

The international language of math saved him. Without that, "It would have been a lot more difficult. That's how I got brave enough to communicate with people."

In Hawaii, an English teacher at the public school he was attending encouraged him to apply at a private school, where he was accepted. "My English was very horrible then," he says. "But I just took the test anyway, in case--who knows?" Aiming at a career in physics, he came to the mainland to attend Caltech 1 1/2 years ago.

Pham has four brothers and two sisters. One sister escaped Vietnam and is living in Holland, and his 15-year-old brother is living with him now in Pasadena. It's a big responsibility, he concedes. "I try to sort of tell him, just don't do the bad things. As long as he gets to a decent college. That's all I want. That's all my parents want."

He works part time as a programmer for First Quadrant, an investment firm in Pasadena, gets A's and Bs at college, and keeps in touch with his parents, who don't intend to try and escape themselves, he says--"just to send their children out."

About half his friends are American, and about half are Vietnamese: "I think that's a good thing."

How are the disparate cultures of the two sets demonstrated? "The way you eat, the way you act, the things you talk about, the way you treat people."

In Asia, the young defer to the old; "Americans tend to do the opposite." Pham says, "I realize my parents' purpose for sending me out. I don't want to disappoint them." At the same time, he appreciates that "here, we have the right to express our opinions."

"I wouldn't want to go back there now," he says.

And so here he is, like a tightrope performer with a long pole. To steady himself, a dip into the East here, into the West there. He is balanced because he is centered. His father believed in him, he says. And, he says: "I believe in myself."

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