Thursday, July 9, 2009

A boy, his uncle and the path of progress

"Basket boats" transport people onto bigger boats and ships off Vietnam's long coastline.

The Intersection of War, Family
Technology and Transportation

By Ted Nguyen

Manager of public communications & media relations

I was born at the height of the Vietnam War in a town of 100,000 people off the coast of the South China Sea.

I learned about the death of former Secretary of Defense and Vietnam War architect Robert McNamera July 6 via Twitter on my iPhone as I sat on a Metrolink train on my way to work. During that ride, I began to reflect upon how much as changed in the delivery of news and information – big and small, happy and sad.

Robert McNamera, left, with South Vietnam Pres. Nguyen Van Thieu in front during a briefing of the war effort. Nguyen Cao Ky, South Vietnam’s prime minister, is in the background talking to U.S. Pres. Lyndon B. Johnson.

Christmas smiles in Saigon: Ted Nguyen, third from left, shares a holiday memory next to former South Vietnam Prime Minister Nguyen Cao Ky, a prominent figure during the war. To the right is Cau Tam or uncle No. 8.

First Grandson, Uncle No. 8

Back in 1969, my father was approximately 50 miles away as an officer in the South Vietnamese navy stationed in Cam Ranh Bay, a strategic base built by the U.S. during the war that the Vietnamese call the “American War.” My mother gave birth to me in the predawn hours when all was quiet in the war-torn seaside town of Nha Trang.

A farmer balances baskets of water spinach behind the Nguyen ancestral home.

Along the Path: Family of Strangers

Upon seeing me for the first time since my family escaped during the collapse of Saigon in 1975, his eyes welled up as he squeezed my chubby Vietnamese-American cheeks and told me how much he loved me. All the while, I was feeling increasingly uneasy watching a grown man whom I never really knew sob before my very eyes.

“You were the family’s first grandchild – a boy,” he muttered. “You don’t know how hard it was for me to walk the entire day to Cam Ranh so I could share the news with your father that he has a new baby son.”

I realized the difficulty of my uncle’s journey back in the late ‘60s on dirt pathways through dense jungles and mountain passes. Just a day before reuniting with my extended family, I became car sick after enduring side-to-side motions and experiencing head-bouncing in the back of a rented minivan on Vietnam’s “modern” roads en route to my family's ancestral home.

The Vietnam War is a distant memory, especially from the tranquil beaches of Nha Trang.

Longing to Share Memories

As I saw Cau Tam's tears trickle down his wrinkled face, my heart sank at the full realization of what this experience actually meant. Soon tears began to fill my own eyes because I longed to share this precious past with my own father who died far too soon when I was a teenager.

“Your father was beaming with pride knowing he had a son,” uncle No. 8 said as he continued to stroke my now wet cheeks. “I walked the entire day, but I never felt tired because I knew how happy the news would make your father feel.”

The Hope that is America

As a child refugee in America, I have come to understand the blessing and beauty that is America. I now know the power of information to shape our democracy. Our nation is strong because her people have access to news, information and differing opinions.

In my relatively short lifespan, I marvel at the pace of change. My cousins in Berlin no longer live in the shadows of a wall dividing East from West. My aunts and uncles in Sydney and Melbourne visit relatives in Vietnam, acclimating their ears and mouths to the Aussie English accent to only leave them head-scratching and tongue-tied later when the American branch of the Nguyen clan visited.

Accelerating Transportation Information

Metrolink trains are examples of the wonders of technology in transportation that have transformed our lives.

Back in the 1980s, it would take weeks if not months for hand-written letters to be read and hand-wrapped care packages to be treasured. Now we instant message and video conference via Skype. It only takes a few days to send packages. We're also communicating on Facebook and Twitter – though it’s difficult to explain to them why we need to perform so much outreach and communications with freeway and transit projects. In Vietnam, people simply sell their land for whatever set price and quickly vacate their homes so roads can be built. My Vietnamese family still doesn't understand what I do in America. My chosen career of public relations is a relatively new but growing profession mostly fueled by multinational corporations.

Embracing Technology to Involve the Public

Like so many businesses and public agencies across the nation, OCTA has embraced technology to deliver news and information quickly and cost effectively. We were among the first transportation organizations to use YouTube to demonstrate the ease and comfort of our buses. The OCTA public communications team pioneered an interactive Web site with social media tools to communicate the status of federal stimulus funds. The dynamic site details to taxpayers how public funds are being invested to improve transportation.

We established multiple project and program pages on Facebook to connect with a fast-growing online community. And now we've found ourselves the first among public agencies using Twitter to share transportation news and engage in “tweeting” conversations.

A recruitment "e-poster" encourages people to work for a more informed community and for public agencies to engage the public to increase citizen participation.

Helping Public Agencies Get Social Media

And we’ve joined with the newly formed Social Media Club Orange County to share our social networking experiences with other people in public agencies, education and nonprofits with the goal of enhancing public transparency and creating online conversations with fast-growing numbers of new media users.

We’re proudly calling the free session “GOV 2.0” and it’s from 5:30 to 9 p.m. Tuesday, July 21 at the headquarters of the Orange County Transportation Authority, 600 S. Main St., in the city of Orange. We invite people to come and "tweet up" with some quality community members who are passionate about sharing their new found treasures from the twitterverse.

Beginning at 5:30 p.m., social media experts will share one-on-one tips and provide personal assistance for people in public agencies and nonprofit organizations to get started in utilizing these no-cost social media tools that have exploded in popularity worldwide.

Beginners to social media are invited to participate in a step-by-step introduction. People are encouraged to bring their Wi-Fi enabled laptop computers or smart phones and will receive help in starting accounts with Twitter, Facebook and YouTube.

A panel will follow at 7 p.m. with a discussion on different strategies and techniques to help people in the public sector become familiar with how social media tools can help organizations become more transparent and responsive with the public. With overwhelming interest, the event has reached the limit of participants, and we are working to provide a video feed of the panel discussion to reach those who want to view the discussion from afar.

Sometimes doing the bright thing leads individuals to use the road less traveled.

Cultivating Community and Communications

Technology has brought sweeping changes across our social and political landscape. I can’t help but think about the possibilities if my father had lived ... of the wonder and look of surprise if only he could see how much our world has progressed. Or more importantly to me, I wonder how he would feel about seeing his baby boy all grown up and grasping all the best that America has to offer and all that makes her truly great – freedom with responsibilities.

It's because of access to information with increased knowledge and the connection with others that hopefully has led that baby boy to now making his little slice of the world a better place.


  1. Hearing about journeys like yours reminds us how fortunate we are to call America home. It reminds us of the sacrifices our parents and families made to come to this country so that we could have the opportunity for a better life. It drives us to persevere so that their sacrifices will never be in vain. Ted…thank you for reminding us all. Robert

  2. Robert,

    Thank you for your kind comments. I can't help but strive to fulfill some of my civic responsibilities and to leave our nation and world a little or a lot better than I found them.


  3. My mother's family arrived in America on the next boat after the Mayflower. No matter how long or short your roots are here, I share your wonder and love for our country and am inspired by: freedom with responsibilities.

    Never wonder about how your father would react to the path your life has taken for there can be no other response other than to be proud and happy - just as he was when your uncle announced your arrival to him.

  4. Ted, this was such a moving story. Thank you for sharing it with us. Although I never had the same family experiences like you had, I also embrace social media and its positive aspects because earlier generations just didn't have access to these sorts of tools. It also, as in the recent case of the Iranian demonstrations, brings our world even closer together. I am truly excited for the potential and am looking forward to meeting you at Government 2.0!


  5. Great article, Ted. Very meaningful!

  6. This was a great article, Ted. Very meaningful!

  7. Great blog - I enjoyed hearing about your life story and also the Gov 2.0 panel discussion last night was interesting. I think you might enjoy a story I had published about a friend who had a similar experience as a refugee from Vietnam.


  8. Erica,

    I enjoyed your post. Thank you for sharing it with me. The Vietnamese refugee community has comparable stories to tell.

    I look forward to reading your future postings.