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THE SUNDAY PROFILE

The Shape of Things to Come

Michael Ma is probably the only person inspired to a career by rush hour on the 405. Now a leading stylist for Mercedes-Benz, the former refugee cherishes his job, his family, his new country.

July 07, 1996|PAUL DEAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

As Ma Cau, 12, this boy's life was always a half step from death; a blur of street corner firefights and mines beneath buses, children blown to pulp and young fathers press-ganged into the Vietnamese army to disappear.

Even Ma's escape aboard a leaking, undersized fishing boat crammed with 40 refugees--all seasick, all parched and petrified--seemed deadlier than staying.

"Waves smashed into the boat like a big wooden drum and we didn't think it could last another night," he remembers. A cruise ship sailed near and there was music and well-dressed watchers at its rail. "But it didn't stop. For the first time I felt abandoned in a dangerous place."

But now, as Michael Ma, 31, this man's life is about as safe as it gets.

He has a prestigious degree, a salary closer to six figures than five, and is part of an elite team drawing and dreaming advanced designs for Mercedes-Benz.

And between his worlds, throughout his 19-year passage from barefoot refugee to respected stylist, there is a simple yet often overlooked creed: Having nothing can be a new start to success or an old excuse for failure.

"In America, opportunity is here for everyone because that's how the system was developed," he says. Ma is speaking of constitutional freedoms and all our equal opportunities, from free education to welfare programs that can be a route out, a way up. "What we haven't got are enough individuals who value the system and know how it can help them."

That, of course, makes Ma fusty and hopelessly out of season. Lord, he even thinks there should be respect for elders and that adult children should support needy senior parents. He believes that regard for those around us creates similar returns; that stubbornness abets personal advancement; that loyal employers are entitled to honest employees; and that families are everyone's primary foundation. And similar quaint nonsense.

Yet Ma makes no attempt to preach or patronize. He knows that his own rearing placed uncommon emphasis on self-worth through centuries-old standards of pride, caring and giving. Teachers, employers, friends and mentors say his qualities are instinctive.

If there is a consciousness, they agree, it is all rooted in a self-discipline fueled by an incessant drive to compete. If there are negatives, say a few, it is his impatience that sometimes makes Ma seem a prima donna.

He doesn't see that temperament. Nor do most friends. Deference, yes. Maybe shyness. Certainly chronic politeness and a consideration for others that produced his gentle counterproposal to a request for an interview.

We could chat any evening. But if the interview would require time away from his workday, asked Ma the established professional, would we please clear it through his boss?

*

Ma Cau's background and beginnings were bright.

His parents were Chinese living in South Vietnam. Father was a herbal physician schooled by his father. Mother sold nets and sea fishing gear and made a family home at Cam Ranh Bay, a deep and sheltered harbor for U.S. military sea lifts supplying the war.

For Ma Cau--to become Michael Ma when an American teacher exercised an immigrant gesture as old as Ellis Island--there was a brother and six sisters. Born in Vietnam, he studied Chinese at good schools in places that later would ring as combat datelines--Phan Rang, Nha Trang, Dalat and Cholon on the outskirts of Saigon.

"It was a happy childhood," Ma recalls. "I got to go to bigger cities and study and I liked that."

It was also an American childhood within a military occupation where he saw no racism, nor disrespect for native populations and cultures.

"I liked to associate with Americans because they were a lot of fun, always caring, very respectful of me and my family and curious about the Vietnamese way of life," Ma says. "I'd get to ride in jeeps. They'd give me ice cream and toys. My favorite was a long, solid plastic firetruck, all red and white with an extending ladder."

Soldiers spoke of baseball and New York; cowboys and Hollywood; surfing, hamburgers, Ford Mustangs and one nation, under God, an inexhaustible fountain of Coca-Cola.

"To me, America was a paradise," Ma says.

Vietnam was also his first taste of Mercedes-Benz.

"A friend's parents had one and sometimes we'd all get driven to school in it," he remembers. "A big, black car with a three-pointed star. Very nice. I felt very privileged. That's how I remember Mercedes."

But as Ma turned toward his teens, South Vietnam began to crumble. He remembers those mid-'70s as neighbors in panic, great convoys of military vehicles, fewer fathers returning from war and more smashed homes.

The Ma family gathered in Cholon. The official advice was simple: American aircraft carriers are in the South China Sea waiting for those who will get on military helicopters and go.

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