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Vietnamese man immerses himself in America

ST. PETERSBURG

When Tam Ho moved from Vietnam to St. Petersburg in 2004, he spent the first four months lolling around his aunt's place, "doing nothing,'' as he cheerfully admits.

That was the last time he took it easy.

Since then, Ho, 28, has held as many as three jobs at once while refining his English, studying for a bachelor's degree and working his way up to senior teller in a busy Regions Bank branch. It's enough to swell the heart of any parent, which it has.

"My mom is very proud I work at a bank,'' Ho says.

Once an isolated communist society, Vietnam has opened to the world with such gusto that it is attracting hundreds of foreign companies and millions of foreign tourists. The traffic is not totally one way — small but growing numbers of young Vietnamese are going abroad for high school or college. And some like Ho plan to permanently settle in the West in hopes of finding greater opportunities than at home.

"The freedom (in Vietnam) is not quite freedom,'' Ho says.

The United States already has 1.5-million people of Vietnamese origin, most of whom came as refugees after the U.S.-backed South Vietnamese government fell to communism in 1975. Ho's own family escaped the worst horrors of the Vietnam War, though his grandfather, who worked for Exxon Mobil, lost everything when the Americans pulled out.

Ho grew up in Ho Chi Minh City, as Saigon is now officially, though rarely, called. After graduating from college, he worked first in information technology, then in sales. But he said he felt that his life lacked direction.

"It was very relaxed,'' he said. "Two hours for lunch.''

In October 2004, encouraged by his mother to seek bigger challenges, he moved to St. Petersburg and into the home of an aunt who had been here for years. He quickly realized the difference between English as spoken by his Vietnamese teachers and English as spoken by clerks in a Florida fast-food joint.

"I was good in grammar,'' he says, "but when I first came here, I totally didn't understand anything.''

Ho enrolled in English classes and got a job pumping gas. His banking career began when he complained that a Bank of America office needed more tellers because customers had to stand in line too long. An employee encouraged him to apply for a job.

Within six months Ho became a teller supervisor while working nights at Home Depot and weekends at a Chinese restaurant in Tampa. Last year he moved to Regions on Fourth Street N, where he usually starts at 8 a.m. As soon as he gets off work, he jumps in his 1992 Honda Accord and heads for Countryside, where he waits tables in a Japanese steakhouse until 11 p.m. or midnight.

Despite his frenetic schedule and the 11-hour time difference, Ho talks to his mother, Tang Thoai Tuyet, in Vietnam every day. Mrs. Tang is adept on the computer, which has Internet access, but they often chat by mobile phone using prepaid calling cards.

Last summer, Ho took his first trip back to Saigon, which is even hotter and more humid than Florida (his mother bought an air conditioner so he wouldn't be too uncomfortable). The family lives in an attractive apartment, which has a shiny red Honda motor scooter parked in the living room. Like millions of other Vietnamese who get around on scooters, Ho's mother uses it to commute to her job as an accountant.

Last fall, she and Ho's 83-year-old grandmother, Pham Thi Nhieu, arrived in St. Petersburg for a five-month visit.

"It's more civilized,'' Mrs. Tang says of Florida. "The traffic is very orderly.''

The two women spent much of their time cooking big Vietnamese meals for Ho and his wife, a Vietnamese woman he met here. When not in the kitchen, mother and grandmother shopped at the Ellenton outlet mall (where many stores sell apparel made in Vietnam, a low-wage country) and visited friends in Orlando. On Halloween, Mrs. Tang went to Busch Gardens' Howl-O-Scream, which she found "very scary.''

Now back home, the women miss Florida. Saigon, with 5-million people, has grown so fast it is no longer the "beautiful, peaceful'' city Ho's grandmother remembers from the prewar '30s, long before peasants began flooding in from the countryside in search of work.

Ho has a green card and plans to apply for U.S. citizenship so he can move the rest of his family to Florida. (His sister has been here since 2005.) They would join the estimated 30,000 Vietnamese people now in the Tampa Bay area, one of the biggest Vietnamese communities in the South.

In the meantime, Ho is preparing for the day later this year when he will be eligible for promotion to customer service or head teller. "He asks for knowledge like he's a sponge,'' says assistant branch manager Rachel Staggers, whom Ho considers his mentor. "He's a young man with such a work ethic and sense of responsibility.''

But by his own standards, Ho is slacking off a bit. He has put a temporary halt to studying for a degree in banking from St. Petersburg College.

"It's summer,'' he says, "and I'm taking some time to relax.''

Susan Taylor Martin can be contacted at susan@sptimes.com.

Vietnamese man immerses himself in America 06/24/08 [Last modified: Saturday, June 28, 2008 9:07pm]
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