STORY // Thai T.



By: Jimmy Patel-Nguyen

When I first told Thai about REFUGENE, he said, “I have some stories for you.”

We met up for chicken and waffles in Chapel Hill where he shared his journey to North Carolina, how he tried assimilating through religion, and his path to becoming a doctor. I’m honored to share his stories. Enjoy!

I planned to include my parent’s journey to the refugee camp, however, they preferred their stories remain private. To respect their wishes, I will only discuss my experiences.

// Arriving and assimilation in America

I was born in a refugee camp in Chonburi province, Thailand and came to America in 1995.

At that time, North Carolina had a huge textile industry. Textile mills in Greensboro, Belmont, and all the rural areas were hiring a lot of Vietnamese refugees, including the mill near the house where I grew up.

When we first came to North Carolina, a lot of the Southern families asked us to go to church with them, and so we went to see what it was like. My parents stopped going to church, but they kept letting me go. It was one of those moments when I was trying to assimilate into society—I didn’t understand it, but I tried it anyways.

Growing up, I was like, “Am I Christian or am I Buddhist? Am I both? Can I be both?” Looking back, I love that my parents let me explore both the American side and the Vietnamese side at the same time.

Religion, school, sports—those things don’t define my core being, but they influence it. I had to explore those on my own.


// Mill work to mill house

After NAFTA was signed, jobs went overseas and my dad got laid off from the textile mill. My mom became a nail technician and my dad went to community college, got his associates degree in engineering, and became a mechanic. He worked at several dealerships and garages, and now he works at a company that restores cars to sell at auction. My mom continued to advance her skills as a nail technician.

When I first came to Belmont, we lived in a double-wide trailer with my aunt and uncle. Eventually, we bought this 100-year-old mill house and renovated it in the 90’s. We spent over a decade in this humble home, slowly adding extra furnishings, space, and appliances. After our family grew and my parents had enough funds from advancing their careers, we decided to purchase a larger—but still modest—home.


// Clashing expectations

I was the first one in my family to go to a four-year university, and I had no idea I was going to become a doctor. Early on in undergrad it was just a light thought in my head. It wasn’t until my sophomore year that I solidified my decision. During that year, my grandparents got sick and I took care of them since I spoke the best English and was able to understand more of the medical nuances. That role as a caretaker set my course.

But even then, there were so many times that I considered not being a doctor—I was worried about the crazy work hours, how much doctors are depressed, and the attrition rate. It was a battle to get my parents to understand my reservations about it.

My parents said, “How bad could it be?” They heard “doctor” and associated it with money, social status, and the good life. But you can be rich and still be unhappy. It was difficult for them to understand beyond their preconceived notions. We had many of these conflicting conversations where I tried to clarify that it wasn’t all glamorous.

Fortunately, they weren’t all negative talks. I remember having a conversation with my parents during the time I was applying for medical school. We had a long discussion regarding my fears of stepping into that path. They made me realize I was surrounding myself with negativity from people angry at medicine and that I needed to seek out people who held positive perspectives. I’m glad I listened because I am very satisfied with my career choice.

I tried to explain to them what my specialty is, but it doesn’t exist in Vietnam and I couldn’t figure out a translation for it. I practice Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, and we focus on very specific things. It’s not a very common specialty in general, so my parents think I’m a physical therapist.

Doctors in Vietnam are different than the doctors here. They assume that just because I’m a doctor, I can do anything medically related—I can perform surgeries, operate on the brain, and remove lungs. Back when they grew up, doctors did everything. But my parents didn’t understand that the system is different in America. Here you choose to go into a surgical or non-surgical field, each with their own peculiarities.

The typical track that parents want is not a fit for everyone. I think it’s important for us as a community to have people outside of the typically desired careers, because we all have talents that benefit the world differently. To limit ourselves to others’ expectations is to live their dreams and not our own.


// Legacy and gratitude

I work hard, but my parents’ work ethic is on a whole other level. Struggling in school doesn’t compare to leaving your country, leaving everything you have behind, and trying to learn a new language and trying to earn money you never had, and at the same time taking care of a kid.

To my parents: Thank you.

I want the next generation to know that we have a long history that they shouldn’t forget. Our history is defined with us continually surviving and making success from nothing. No matter the odds, somehow we ended up achieving things that people thought were impossible.

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