Story by Sima Sarraf
Photo by David Le

He drives through the congested streets of Saigon toward one of his favorite noodle restaurants, Pho Nho, which makes the dish in the northern style he prefers. Trung Duc Tran drifts through the honking traffic in his silver five-series BMW, a luxury he once dreamed of. The road to his dream car and dream life began over a decade ago when his pursuit for a higher education brought him to Cal State Fullerton.

“Vietnam considers education very important,” said Tran “In every family, they think the same way too… (it’s) an investment for children.”   

This value for education was instilled in Tran at a young age as well as the desire to make his family proud. He attended school and worked in his free time, including weekends. He never gave himself a break because of his desire to do well in school. His hard work eventually paid off when he passed the mandatory tests that are required to attend a university in Vietnam.

After he received his bachelor’s degree in Vietnam, Tran’s life took various turns that eventually steered him to Cal State Fullerton. He moved through the business school’s MBA program and learned a lot in the process. He gained family, friends and communication skills that he uses to this day, but most importantly his education and his desire to continue growing as a person.

Now at 40-years-old and back in Vietnam he is a regional sales director for Dell. Tran frequently talks to students and encourages them to make the same steps that he did, crediting his experience in business school for much of his success.

His family life, with his 2-year-old son Jeff and wife Anh, and his career with Dell could have been very different had he continued down his original path.

Tran’s entire family works in the construction business, and they hoped he would continue with the trade. Because respect for his elders is ingrained in him, he did not want to disappoint his parents or stray from their wishes. So although he was not passionate or enthusiastic about the construction world, he began following his family’s footsteps and started applying to universities where he would work towards a degree.

All of his hard work paid off—Tran was admitted to the University of Civil Engineering in Hanoi. He received his undergraduate degree in 1995 and was able to contribute to his family’s construction tradition as a civil engineer. He does not refer to construction as the family “business,” but as the family “tradition.” Although he did not love the industry he was stepping into, his decision to honor the family trade illustrates the importance of family, honor and duty in Vietnamese culture.

After several years of duty-bound service, Tran realized that he not only lacked passion for construction, but also that his dream job was actually to work with computers—a far cry from his current position. Tran made a bold move and approached his father to discuss his dreams. His father as it turns out not only believed in his son but was 100 percent behind him. Tran received a $3,000 loan from his father, and opened up his own computer retail store.

“I worked so hard. One day I would work 10, 12 hours, no weekends for a long time, they knew I was trying,” Tran said.

Once again through hard work and little time off, Tran was able to repay his father a few months later. Although his business did okay, the computer market was not the bustling business it is today.

“In Vietnam at that time it was very expensive and less people can afford it,” said Tran. “We were very successful, but at the same time we saw a lot of problems in terms of management and we lost some money as well.”

When Tran saw a flier in a Ho Chi Minh newspaper about a study abroad program in California he realized that he was not finished in his pursuit for an education.

“I need to take some business education in order to move forward with that, so I decided to go to American (for my) MBA,” Tran recalls thinking.

It was the perfect opportunity for him to acquire the skills he needed in order to continue in the computer market and follow his dreams. 

Although excited for his decision, naturally there were things Tran was also nervous about.

“I didn’t know anything about America, anything about going to college there,” said Tran. But luckily a program was in place to help calm such nerves and prepare students for this kind of endeavor. Tran was put into a three-week program to help prepare him for his departure.

The program, which even included the U.S. embassy in Vietnam, helped prepare students for life in America and what to expect abroad.

Tran was placed with a Vietnamese family in Little Saigon (Westminster) through a program that assisted Vietnamese students studying at Cal State Fullerton.

Tran’s level of culture shock was softened by the familiar language, food and sense of community that the Vietnamese community within Westminster offered. With the largest Vietnamese population outside of Vietnam, Orange County’s hub known as Little Saigon quickly became Tran’s second home. The family he lived with always welcomed him to family dinners, gave him rides when he needed to get somewhere and took him on family outings. He became a part of their family.

The loving family wished for a formal adoption ceremony, but the complications ran deep for Tran. Although he loved them and truly considered them as a second family, there was something in his heart that troubled him with the proposition.

“Actually it’s something complicated in the way that my parents belong to the communist (party) and they belong to the Republican Vietnamese before,” said Tran. “So I’m afraid that relationship might affect my family… I tried to keep it very simple.”

He wants young people to know that it is possible to move forward with their lives and pursue the things they are passionate about, just as he did.

With internal drama, Tran never mentioned the situation, as he saw it, to his second family in Little Saigon. He continued to be a part of their home. The family’s son, who was six years older than him, even taught him how to drive a car, which is why he drives calmly and slowly rather than joining the hectic and sometimes scary Saigon traffic.

Settling into his new home life was one thing; his new school life was another. Realizing he needed a job, Tran decided to help with the construction on campus and applied with a Korean man named Lim Huyen. The two immediately bonded over a shared experience of coming to America, trying to fit in and speaking “weird” English. Despite all of his experience in construction Huyen was hesitant to hire Tran because of his shaky English.

“He told me when he interviewed me (that) ‘I know you’ve got the skills, but I’m not sure about your English. So do me a favor, you walk around this office, meet everybody and talk to them. If they can understand you, then you’re hired,’” recalled Tran with a smile.

Tran talks about how nervous he was at that moment, but one thing he took away was a small piece of advice from his former boss.

“Lim told me… you need to speak very loud slowly and slowly so people can understand you,” Tran said. “So that’s my way, very slowly and very loud.”

Tran went through his three years at Cal State Fullerton, getting his MBA in the college of business and speaking slowly and loudly all the way through. Huyen was not the only friend that Tran would make. He would soon meet Tam Nguyen, another student in Cal State Fullerton’s Business MBA program, and the two would become lifelong friends.

“I had heard of him through others described as a computer genius from Hanoi and just an all around great guy,” recalls Nguyen.

Tran became more and more attached to his new country; to American food and culture, his friends at CSUF but especially to his American Vietnamese family. He came to love them. When asked if he still misses them, he simply answers “yes” nine years later.

With his new education, his new ability to communicate and think more critically and his overall Americanization, Tran’s identity was a hybrid. This is one thing that his wife, Ahn, credits him for.

Leaving his second family in Little Saigon was just the beginning. Once he graduated and returned to Vietnam, Tran was once again trying to adapt. With the hopes of a new job in a field he loved, Tran was let down and admits that things were not so great for him when he returned. He couldn’t find work and eventually took a job with Ford motor companies. It was not the computer related job he was after, but it was a job. Five years later, he decided to once again seek what he was truly after.

“I’m going to do something I like… something I really like,” Tran had thought to himself.

Thanks to his American education and newfound communication skills Tran was given not one but two offers with major computer companies in Vietnam. Toshiba and Dell were both seeking Tran, and although the job with Toshiba would have been less work, Tran decided that Dell being the newer company in Vietnam was the right choice.

“He achieved tremendous success at a very young age in academics, business and social standing in a developing country,” said Nguyen.” (But) he has always remained grounded and true to who he is.”

Tran credits his education at Cal State Fullerton and his blended identity with his success. Through his time in America he gained critical thinking and communication skills that are not common in Vietnam. His skills are a valued commodity.

“I think I have an advantage of looking in another way, at doing business,” Tran says. “I look at efficiency, I look at how the corporation is going to survive in tough environments…”

Despite his success, Tran makes time to visit students in Vietnamese universities. He speaks to them about his time in America, his education and how valuable the experience was. He wants young people to know that it is possible to move forward with their lives and pursue the things they are passionate about, just as he did.

Tran’s experience and blended ideals continue to make lasting impressions on everyone, including his own wife, Anh. She loves many things about him, but especially the blended Vietnamese man that he is. While the “traditional” Vietnamese man expects his wife to stay home, cook, clean and take care of the children, Anh is encouraged to further her own career. They both share home duties and have a nanny for their young son, Jeff.

“He got a good mixture of Vietnamese with the thinking of America,” said Anh. “He always encourages me to improve my career and supports me and gives me very good advice on doing business.”

Tran continues straddles both worlds even when it comes to driving.  Although he prefers to navigate the busy streets of Saigon in his five series, he also owns a motorbike- the vehicle of choice for most of the country. Anh confesses that she prefers the motorbike over the family car. 

“Actually,” she said. “I like the motorbike because we can hug… it’s very romantic”.