My friend Nghia used to shiver when it was 55 degrees in Wilkes-Barre. It was a far cry from his native South Vietnam where winter temperatures were typically in the upper 70s and summer in the 90s.
“I bet he wouldn’t mind 55 degrees now,” I thought as I picked up the phone last week to see how he was doing. Nghia lives in Rochester, Minnesota, where, with the wind chill factored in, temps fell to 70-below during that Polar Vortex that we too experienced, but to a much lesser degree.
“It’s not so bad,” Nghia said, much to my surprise. “After 40 years you get used to it.”
Home to the Mayo Clinic and one of IBM’s top research and development centers, Rochester is often listed as one of the best places to live in the United States, its winters notwithstanding.
Nghia (pronounced Nee-yuh) has worked at IBM ever since graduating from Wilkes College (now Wilkes University). He has helped produced the marvels that affect all of our lives. No surprise there. An electronics engineering major, Nghia is downright brilliant. He also is a hard worker, a harder worker than anyone I know.
We met in an economics class in the early ’70s. Economics involves numbers which should have been right in Nghia’s strike zone. But this particular professor was more interested in writing ability. He gave essay tests, which for me, already somewhat of a seasoned journalist by then, were a breeze. It didn’t take long for Nghia to notice.
On our first test, Nghia got a grade of 70. I got 100.
Now, Nghia was a serious student. He didn’t come from Vietnam to get C’s. So he immediately sought me out after class to ask if we could study together. And that was the start of a deep friendship.
At the outset I sympathized with Nghia. He clearly understood the course material better than I, but for some reason the professor really liked my writing. Poor Nghia had been in America less than a year and was just beginning to learn English. I spent hours and hours tutoring him and soon he was getting A’s, too. But not 100 percent. That lofty perch seemed reserved for me.
One time I completely misinterpreted whatever the professor said and had it in my notes all wrong. Sure enough, the topic came up on the test and Nghia and I both wrote my nonsensical explanation. When the professor handed back our papers, Nghia got 95, five points off for the mistake I taught him. I got 100.
Next to my ridiculous answer was a question mark.
Nghia, in broken English, offered this analysis: “He read your answer and say ‘Ackerman write this. Must be some new economic theory I never hear of.’ He read my answer and say, ‘Stupid Vietnamese kid, minus 5.’”
We still laugh about that.
How serious was Nghia about his education? If there was an engineering exam, he’d park himself at a table in the library and stay there for eight straight hours. I’m not sure he even took breaks to eat. He was the epitome of self-discipline.
He and I would study in the library, too, but sometimes he’d invite me to his apartment near the campus. The first time I visited, he flipped on the television, and said, “I build this.”
I thought he meant the wooden TV stand. But what he meant was the television itself.
“It easy,” he said.
“Maybe for you,” I answered. All I can do is write, I reminded him.
Another time, he played a video. It was of his family celebrating his birthday back in Vietnam. With him absent, of course. His mother was whipping up a cake using an electric mixer. “I send that machine home,” Nghia said with pride.
Nghia told me about the Vietnam of his early childhood, a beautiful, flower-filled sub-tropical country, in which his father was a teacher and his mother operator of a French restaurant. He also told me about hiding behind the couch in his living room as tanks rumbled through his front yard in the city of Hue in 1968.
A kindly military adviser befriended Nghia’s family and one day said there was an opportunity for one of the teenaged children to go to America and attend college on a full scholarship. His parents chose Nghia. He said he cried himself to sleep that night. The next day he arrived in San Francisco not speaking a word of English. His final destination was Wilkes-Barre.
Perhaps a year or so after we met, Nghia told me he believed English had become his first language. He said he had a dream the night before and in it, his father, who spoke only Vietnamese and French, was speaking English.
Our friendship included conversations with Nghia saying to me, “Tell me about your Christ,” and me saying to Nghia, “Tell me about your Buddha,” and countless hours on the tennis court. Nghia, all of 5’1’’, cracked topspin backhands that seemed shot out of a cannon.
We come from completely different cultures and have completely different talents, he the computer genius, I the writer, but at our core, Nghia Van Phan and I are the same. Not unlike my Jesus and his Buddha.
We never see each other anymore, last getting together maybe 30 years ago. So, we vowed to fix that. Nghia loves Rochester and would love for me to see it. I would too. But he strongly suggests I wait ’til summer. I think I will.
Ed Ackerman writes The Optimist every week for Greater Pittston Progress. Look for his blogs online during the week at pittstonprogress.com.