STORY // John N.



By: Jimmy Patel-Nguyen

John and I are friends from college. I got a chance to catch up with him over a cup of tea.

He told me about his family’s journey from Vietnam, trips back to the country, and philosophy as a boxer. It is an honor to share his story. Enjoy!

// Family journey

My mom was pregnant with me when they came to America. I was born in Fayetteville, North Carolina in 1992—the youngest of nine siblings and tie-breaker between four brothers and four sisters.

My dad was in the South Vietnamese army, and was sent to prison after the war. My parents told me things were so bad at that time, they were willing to sectionalize the family to escape. They were trying to get any- and everyone out, but they just couldn’t take everyone at once. When a boat was ready, my mom would take two or three kids and just go.

They tried to flee several times, but never made it. The coast guard would catch them and bring them back. The only one who got out was my oldest brother. He was a teenager and went on his own. My mom arranged it. Once he got on the boat, there was no more communication.

There was only hope.

My brother made it to an island, then America, and then was sponsored by a nice family who took good care of him. Meanwhile, my parents were still trying to find a way to get everyone over here.

We finally made it to America thanks to my dad’s sister. During the war, she married an American soldier, and she came to this country with her mom. She was able to sponsor my mom, dad, and seven kids. After my family came over, I was born and they were able to reunite with my oldest brother.


// Beginnings in America

At first, my family lived with my aunt and uncle who sponsored us—thirteen people under one roof. We eventually moved into a Habitat For Humanity house. There weren’t enough rooms and beds for everyone, so I actually slept on the living room floor until my teenage years.

There was a time in college when I had an apartment and I just didn’t buy a bed. I didn’t need it. I was comfortable without one. I remember some friends in college would ask me, “John, why are you sleeping on the floor?” They thought it was weird, but they didn’t know my background.

Supporting our family was a collective effort. My dad worked at a Krispy Kreme factory, my mom and grandmother were servers at a food hall, and my older siblings worked, too. It just wasn’t possible to support our big family with one or two salaries. And then my mom, she took the American citizenship test, passed, and because of that, she earned U.S. citizenship for all the kids. She saved my siblings a lot of time and energy.

Success has been progressive down the line in my family.

From a financial standpoint, my parents were only concerned with surviving. There was no thought of retirement or investment. They didn’t have the money or the time. But for me—number nine in the family—I’m planning to buy my first investment property, and I can do that because of my parents and older siblings. They made my life a lot easier. That’s what I mean by “success has been progressive in my family.”


// Exploring Vietnamese roots

I’ve been to Vietnam three times—when I was five, eight, and twelve years old. My mom took me back for months at a time. She never told me why, but I think it’s because out of all the kids, I was the only one who didn’t know the mother country.

When I went back, people looked at me a little bit weird because I speak a mix of Northern and Southern dialects. For example, I call my mom “má” and my dad “bố.” My mom told me our family is from the North, but because of the war, they moved to the South. She also taught me there are actually several ethnic groups in Vietnam: Kinh, Tày, Montagnard, and many more. My family are Kinh—the largest ethnic group in Vietnam.

The best thing I learned in Vietnam was how to be more independent. I remember going to the street market, learning to haggle, and buying bánh tiêu. It’s my mom’s favorite pastry—like an inflated pancake—so I would buy that for her. My cousins and I could explore the city without supervision, which is very different than America.


// Becoming a boxer

I’ve always felt this stigma that people see Asians as weak, and that stereotype was a big motivator for me to get stronger. My older brother introduced me to weight lifting, and in high school, I had a reputation of being the “strong guy.” It was a nice feeling knowing that the strongest guy in a room was Asian.

In college, I got into boxing. My parents hate that I box, but I have always wanted to compete as an athlete. I couldn’t play sports growing up because I had really bad asthma as a kid. Amateur boxers don’t get paid, it’s pure competition. You think throwing your hands forward is easy, but it’s tough. Movement is an art—whether in boxing or in dance.

Amateur-level boxing is an honest sport. You train hard—you get better. But in the real world, hard work doesn’t always correlate with career progression. You could get passed up for a promotion even though you are the hardest worker. It happens.

That’s what I love about fitness and boxing—only when you put in work, do you get results. That’s fair.


// On family legacy

Of course I want my kids to know Vietnamese food, language, and culture. But what’s most important to me is leaving my family’s history. My kids are going to be in a better spot than I was, just like I was in a better spot than my parents were. Whenever my family gets together, they always reminisce about how far they’ve come.

I would like my kids to know that my family really started from zero.

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