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The Story of Do Van Khoai

Husband, Father, Tailor, Great American.

by Michael H. Thomson
August 28, 2002

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In late 1979, my ex-wife, Nguyen Thi Dat informed me of the plight of her sister, brother-in-law, and nieces who had escaped from Communist Vietnam by boat and landed upon the shores of Malaysia. She had learned of their location by a letter they had sent from the refugee camp where they were interred.

Immediately, working through an agency of the Catholic Church, we began the process of trying to get this politically stranded family, the Do's, relocated to the United States.

It has been so long ago, the exact dates and times of the events I am going to describe escape me so please be patient...

My thoughts and feelings at the time were of confusion, doubts about our abilities to get them here, and a lack of confidence in their abilities to adjust to such a bewildering country as the U.S.A. To the best of my knowledge , none of the Do family spoke English - or so I mistakenly thought - which added more gravity to the situation. All my worries were soon lifted when the Do family finally arrived in Biloxi, Mississippi. Through this wonderful family, I, Michael Thomson, a homegrown American, was soon to learn what America really means to those who truly want to settle here.

The first planeload brought Mang, the mother, and the two teenage nieces Hanh and Dung, and the youngest niece Nga who was eleven.. Khoai, the father did not arrive for a couple of days.

On the first trip from the airport to our home in Biloxi, one of the daughters remarked - in English - as she looked at the street lights and palm trees lining the oceanfront highway, "America is so beautiful!" My memory may have obscured other comments that were made, but I will remember that statement for as long as I live!

Through the daughters I learned that in the internment camp in Malaysia, they had taught themselves to read, write, and speak English, worked out plans for their future education, and how they were going to make a livelihood in a strange country.

My most acute observation of the Do family was that these people were extremely self reliant. After I met Do Van Khoai, I found out why!

Almost immediately upon arrival in the United States, Do Van Khoai went to work. Not a month later, but immediately! Through Dat's translation I was told that Khoai wanted to use some of his meager resettlement money(less than $600) to buy a sewing machine. I couldn't believe it! Sewing machines are expensive and here was this fellow wanting to spend most of his capital to buy one when he hadn't been in the U.S. for more than two days! Naïve American that I was, I was thinking about job training programs, English courses, and other programs that would help a displaced family make the tremendous adjustment to life in the United States, not blowing all their money - on what? - SEWING MACHINES!

Somewhat grudgingly I joined in the translation chain at the local Singer Store. It went like this: Do Van Khoai asked questions of Dat, my wife, she relayed them to me, and I relayed them to the sales clerk. Meanwhile, I'm looking at sewing machines with price tags well over $600. Basic question to the sales clerk: Do you have used sewing machines? I thought the sales clerk was going to jump for joy! She immediately led us to the storage area which was full of used sewing machines that had been brought in as trade-ins for new Singers.

Khoai, a tailor by trade, calmly walked through this sea of machines, examining each one, making comments, and finally making his decision as to which he would purchase. He bought two and the parts necessary to fix them. The amazing thing was that he still had money left over! A good part of that leftover cash was spent at the local Hancock Fabrics store where he bought thread and cloth.

Years ago, in college, I had studied capital investment in my college economics classes, but I had never seen an example of the process that was this close and personal!

That afternoon, Khoai spent his time bringing the two machines up to a high level of maintenance. Then he began his phone work. Biloxi, Mississippi, you see, has had a large Vietnamese community for about 26 years. Most of the original population from the first wave of immigration in 1975 later sponsored family who had recently escaped Communist Vietnam by way of boat. Because of this, the Biloxi telephone book has several listings of distinctive Vietnamese names, some of the more common being Nguyen and Tran. Going through the phone book like a modern day telemarketer, Khoai basically announced his presence, his qualifications, and his willingness to perform top quality tailoring services for the local Vietnamese population. Almost immediately, Khoai was in business!

Vietnamese with clothing requests starting arriving at our door in a steady stream. With his measuring tape, quick and witty comments, Do Van Khoai and his wife Mang became known throughout the Biloxi Vietnamese community as the people to come when you needed a shirt, pants, dress, or wedding ensemble. Later when Khoai and his family moved to a house of their own, the traffic was even heavier.

Through his entrepreneurship, Khoai bought a home, a car, supported three children through college, and realized the "American Dream." Two daughters graduated with degrees in computer science from the University of Southern Mississippi. One of these two is very happy as a housewife and mother in Manassas, Virginia, while the other is a senior programmer for Geico Insurance. The youngest daughter was a valedictorian of Biloxi High School and received a full scholarship to Tulane University which was the stepping stone to a degree in Pharmacy from the Medical College of Virginia in Richmond.

Many Americans are so youth oriented that there is a prevalence of thought among some that if you are past 40 you are all washed up. When Do Van Khoai arrived in the United States in 1980 with practically nothing in his pockets, he was fifty-four years old! Do Van Khoai, through his example, his influence on his children to become productive citizens, and his contribution to his community, by any standard, earns the title: Great American! AND of course he could not have done any these things without the support of his constant companion and lovely wife, Mang!

Mang and Khoai are happily retired today, and like many Americans travel, visit their children and grandchildren, and continue to positively influence those about them. 

see "Remembering Biloxi" by Michael H. Thomson, 8/30/2005

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