Hong’s incredible journey began on the day 11 years ago when he sat confined to the dust of his fishing village near Can Tho in Vietnam and suddenly heard someone mention America. Of course, Hong did not actually hear what the person was saying because he has been deaf since birth. But he sure did understand the primitive sign language being employed and his heart soared at the thought of all the possibilities that might be available to him in a land of endless dreams.
“They said something about America,” he recalled the other day, “and that was enough for me. I left on a small boat from Nha Trang, and after a long time on the ocean we got to the Philippines “I was in a camp four years. All the time, trying to get here. After four years, my wish came true.”
His name is Hong Ngoc Nguyen. He is 37 years old and he stands today as the ultimate rebuttal to anyone attempting to trash this country through handwringing editorials or pathetic talk-show whining, so much of it aimed at having people think we are all merely part of some cowboy culture filled with constant violence and obnoxious vulgarity rather than the brightest star in the world galaxy.
Hong spoke through an interpreter, Hannah Yaffe, outside a first-floor classroom in the DEAF Inc. offices on Brighton Avenue, a block from Union Square in Allston. He was among several hearing-impaired immigrants present the other afternoon who come to DEAF daily to learn both signing and English so they can live a better life in a land of promise.
Cathy Mylotte was assisting Ms. Yaffe with interpretation because she knows Hong quite well and absolutely knows what he has had to endure. She too is deaf. She arrived in the United States from Galway, Ireland, in 1970 and has dedicated nearly every day since to helping others like her succeed at things so basic they are taken for granted by the rest of us: grocery shopping, driving a car, catching a bus.
“There was no education for me in Vietnam,” Hong said in sign language. “I came here because I love the word `America’ and I knew there was school here. As soon as I come 11 years ago, I work hard to be good American.”
“Where do you work?” he was asked.
“First job,” he reported with excitement, “was in grocery store. I stack shelves. Good job.
“That was in the day. At night, I help sand floors. That was good job, too. Weekends, I work with my brother at fruit store.
“Now, I work for medical equipment company in Braintree, the CPS Company. Wonderful job.”
His hands seemed to somehow share the smile that creased his face as he used them, flicking fingers back and forth with tremendous speed, to tell Hannah Yaffe and Cathy Mylotte about his marvelous new life. He told them he could remember feeling vibrations from air raid sirens and artillery rounds as a child, growing up with his parents, three brothers, and three sisters in the Mekong Delta where the entire family lived meagerly off the land and the water.
He told them about being helped by Peace Corps workers and American Maryknolls in the Philippines. About his older brother, Bau Nguyen, who is 42 and accompanied Hong through the camps and across the sea to Boston and is employed today as a case worker for the state welfare department. Then, he happily informed everyone in the room that he finally returned to Vietnam in February to marry a woman from his village and hopes that she will be able to join him here soon.
“We had a huge banquet after the wedding,” Hong declared. “It was very expensive. I paid.”
“What makes you proud?” Hong was asked.
Without hesitation, Hong told Hannah Yaffe: “On July 3, I became a citizen. I stood in a big hall and was made an American. I studied very hard for the honor. I have pictures that were taken that show me being a citizen.”
Now, Cathy Mylotte placed her hand on Hong’s shoulder, and both people beamed with a fierce pride born out of incredibly hard work that the hearing world cannot begin to comprehend. We are surrounded by so many who constantly complain and understand so little about our history and heritage that these two deaf citizens symbolize with their positive, refreshing testimony what this place — America — is truly all about.
“Ask him what he wants to do,” Cathy Mylotte was asked.
“I want to do everything,” he laughed.