Councilman bridged two worlds


 Ask any Vietnamese-American who came to America during or after the Vietnam War that lasted from the 1960s to April 30, 1975, about their journey to the United States and you hear stories that tug deep-inside the soul.

 Ask any Vietnamese-American who came to America during or after the Vietnam War that lasted from the 1960s to April 30, 1975, about their journey to the United States and you hear stories that tug deep-inside the soul.

There were the “boat people,” political individuals who sought refuge, South Vietnamese military people who were being trained in the U.S. and then sent back to Vietnam to help America fight the Communist North Vietnam, and regular Vietnamese families seeking safety.

Stories have been told of whole families with their friends and/or neighbors who sat for a solid week in small fishing boats sailing to America, with barely room to breathe and only the clothes on their backs, with no place to use as a bathroom, only to near the shores of the United States and find themselves being fired upon by the U.S. military.

One of those Vietnamese refugees is Garden Grove City Councilman Christopher Phan. Phan said he was just a year old when his father escaped from their homeland of war-torn Vietnam in 1975.

“U.S. troops were pulling out of Vietnam; the country was collapsing, and my father, a lawyer who had worked closely with the South Vietnamese government, felt it wasn’t safe for him to be there any longer,” said Phan. “My father and a group of South Vietnamese police escaped from the Mekong Delta,  where the river opens into the ocean, with an American ship picking them up at sea.”

Phan's mother didn't hear from her husband for five years. She didn't know if he was alive or dead; as Saigon fell, her husband didn't have time to tell his family he was leaving Vietnam.

Phan said because the journey was extremely dangerous, his father had to leave his family behind in Vietnam until he could get settled in the United States. He would then send for them “later.”  “Later” turned into seven long years,” said Phan.

After five years, a letter arrived from America, saying his father was “alive and doing well.”

“In the letter was a package of Wrigley's gum in a green wrapper,” Phan smiled. Phan said that as a child, he was too young to realize the danger around them in South Vietnam. He said the Communists took everything from their family and the authorities harassed and interrogated his mother and grandmother because of his father’s role with the South Vietnamese and that he had escaped from Vietnam.

Phan was taught French by his mother and English by a neighbor in Vietnam.

“I diligently learned the language with anticipation of speaking it someday in America,” he said. “I was 8 years old, when I escaped Communist-controlled Vietnam, immigrating with my family. It was eight years later when we were reunited with my father in Indiana,” he said.

The journey to America was not a direct route; they were sponsored by their father to come to America but had to spend a month in a Thailand Refugee Camp before his mother's brother from Hong Kong, could came to pick them up.

Arriving in America, Phan said everything was new and challenging and he was the only one who didn't have blue eyes and blond hair. He credits his new American friends and second-grade teacher for helping him overcome the obstacles  of being in a new country.

“Never forgetting their love and support, I hoped someday to help others and give back to America for the blessings it had given my family,” Phan said. After graduating from law school, Phan served in the United States Navy and in 2012 was elected to the Garden Grove City Council.

The night of his induction into the council, after checking with the city attorney and clerk, Phan proposed to his girlfriend of two years, Cindy Pham,  in front of the council and those assembled for the meeting. 

“Thank goodness she said 'yes,’”  Phan said.

He and his fiancée met at her brother's graduation from Naval Officer's school in 2010 and will be married this November.

Phan, who is 39 years old, served nine years in the Navy and four years in the reserves, making it 13 years of U.S. Naval service.

“I was 27 years old when I joined the Navy,” Phan said. That was after he attended law school at Southern Illinois University on a full scholarship because of good grades.

He has two siblings born in America after the family was finally reunited – a sister, nine years younger than him, has become a surgeon and a brother, who will be the first Vietnamese-American Seal officer when he graduates soon.

“America. It's amazing how one word can give so much hope to so many,” said Phan. “Growing up in the Mekong Delta after the fall of South Vietnam, my mother told me that one day we would reunite with my father, like thousands of other Vietnamese who risked their lives to be in America.”

Phan said his passion is to affect legislation for immigrants and refugees; through that effort, he has received a humanitarian award.

Phan's desire to serve the diverse community of Garden Grove was the reason he ran for election to Garden Grove City Council. In doing so, he said he walked five-hours a day for nearly 10 months to cover the entire city.

“The experience and connections made at each home were invaluable,” he said. “I learned and heard what truly mattered to our citizens .”

Phan also serves as an O. C. Deputy District Attorney, primarily prosecuting misdemeanor cases including DUIs and domestic violence.

Phan said he never forgot those who helped him as a child “To be who I am today.”

 He serves on the board of Horizon Cross Cultural Center and the Boys and Girls Clubs of Garden Grove.

“These organizations serve our immigrant community and our youth,” he said. “We make our community stronger by doing all we can to serve those who need the most assistance. America is truly a beacon of hope and opportunities are boundless as long as we embrace them, follow our dreams and do not limit ourselves,” he said. “I believe in self-dependence and self-reliance. Our country may be going through tough economic times, but our difficulties can be overcome if we work together, provide support to those in need and give more of ourselves to our community and country.”

Phan said his life has been amazing.

“Only in America can you have the life that I've lived. I'm sorry we lost our country but glad my dad chose America.”


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