Vietnamese refugee who made good emphasizes faith, hard work, education and giving back

The story of Vinh Chung and his family is truly an American success story.

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His family came here from Vietnam with virtually nothing; yet ultimately earned, between him and his siblings, “six doctorates and five master’s ­degrees, from schools such as ­Harvard, Yale, Georgetown, the University of Pennsylvania, and NYU.”

Chung himself is a doctor, Fulbright Scholar, author and serves on the Board of Directors for World Vision, a Christian aid organization that became his family’s savior, and led to their sponsor.

The Chungs’ compelling journey is described in his new memoir “Where the Wind Leads.”

Chung’s family lost their multi-million dollar rice milling empire overnight when South Vietnam fell to the Communists in 1975, eight months before he was born. The “Viet Cong took almost everything,” he described.

After four years of barely eking out a living on a small tract of land, Chung’s parents decided to risk it all in the hopes for a better life, and took the children on a boat into the South China Sea. There, they encountered Thai pirates, who beat and robbed them before taking them prisoner ashore the hot Malaysian beach. Denied refuge there, the Chungs were herded onto a “derelict fishing boat” and cast off, left for dead along with 83 other refugees

Chung recounts,

But out at sea, my father had, I think, his first connection with a creator. Because while out there, he looked around and saw his entire family dying of thirst; there was no hope in sight. And it was at that moment that he got on his knees and prayed. And my father shared that almost immediately after he said that prayer, the skies turned dark, and rain came down, and we were offered a temporary quench in our thirst.

Then, on our sixth day at sea, a miracle happened: We were spotted by a World Vision aid ship. The crew brought us to a refugee camp in Singapore, and a few months later, a Lutheran church in Fort Smith, Ark., sponsored my family’s move to the United States.

Chung describes the “fear that defines the life of a refugee: Don’t stand out. Don’t take risks. And whatever you do, don’t fail.”

My time was divided between school, work, and church. Work gave me discipline and kept me out of trouble; church gave me community and a strong faith. My siblings and I walked a path two inches wide and 18 years long, but it turned out to be a good one…

Chung writes of going back to visit extended family in Vietnam in 2002, being shocked by their abject poverty:

Visiting them was like walking into a parallel universe—the life that would have been mine had the wind blown our boat in a different ­direction.

In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus said, ‘When someone has been given much, much will be required in return; and when someone has been entrusted with much, even more will be required’ (12:48 NLT). I used to wonder who Jesus meant, because I sure didn’t think it was my family. The way I saw it, we had been given nothing, entrusted with nothing. I hoped that rich and powerful people would read Jesus’s words and take them to heart.

But when I went to Vietnam, I finally understood: He meant me. I was the one plucked from the South China Sea. I was the one granted asylum in a nation where education is available to everyone, and prosperity is attainable for anyone. I worked hard to get to where I am today, but the humbling truth is that my hard work was possible because of a blessing I did nothing to deserve. And that blessing is something I must pass on, in any way I can.

My story is true for all of us, whether you arrived in this country by boat or by birth: Much has been given to us—and much is required. That, I believe, is what it means to be an American.


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