Tram Nguyen: a flag bearer for Vietnamese Americans

By Khanh Lynh   November 19, 2018 | 11:00 pm PT
For two years, she could not get to see her senate representative. So she ran against him and won.
Tram Nguyen, 1st Vietnamese American elected to legislature in Massachusetts. Photo: Andovertstownsman.

Tram Nguyen, the first Vietnamese American elected to the legislature in Massachusetts. Photo courtesy of Andovertstownsman

It was an upset victory, papers said. Tram Nguyen was surprised, too.

Tram, running as a Democrat, had ousted 18th Essex District Republican state representative Jim Lyons to become the first Vietnamese - American woman elected into the state legislature and the first ever into the House of Representatives.

"I decided to run because I had failed to meet in person with Rep Lyons for two consecutive years to raise some issues I was concerned about.

"So I tried to give out a message to voters that I would be one who's always ready to meet them to solve problems of the state," Tram told VnExpress about her opponent.

In 1992, when Tram was five, she and her parents and a 3-year-old sister left HCMC for the U.S. with just $100 in hand. In Merrimack Valley, Massachusetts, they were lucky to be hosted by a Vietnamese family who’d come to the U.S. in 1975.

Speaking no English, Tram's father and mother worked different jobs to raise their family. They also worked on learning the new language and adapting to a new life.

On her first day at school, she was very frustrated because she could not speak English, but with the support of two Vietnamese teachers, the girl caught up fast. 

Apart from being teased for incorrect English, she faced no discrimination in a school where students came from many countries. Have a few Vietnamese friends helped a lot.

At home, Tram's mother took charge of the family while her father worked hard, delivering food. When she was 14, Tram tried to help her parents by doing different jobs, including working as an assistant in a doctor’s office, tutoring and babysitting. Her tireless efforts also earned her a scholarship in the Tufts University.

"I had to try hard because I knew my parents could not afford to send me to university and higher. They had always encouraged me to get good results in studies to move ahead, which most Asians chose as a way of life. I wanted my parents to be proud of me."

Gradually, the family's financial situation improved when Tram's father worked as an engineer and her mother became a quality controller in the same company, though they did not have formal qualifications. Tram continued to study and got a doctorate degree in law from the Northeastern University. She’d first aimed at becoming a doctor, before deciding that she could help the community more as a lawyer.

Tram is proud that she can not only speak Vietnamese fluently, but also read and write it well. She is thankful that her parents made the effort to ensure that she and her sisters speak Vietnamese all the time.

"My family has always gathered together to celebrate all the special days of Vietnam, including the Lunar New Year (Tet), the Mid-Autumn festival and death anniversaries," she said.

Tram Nguyen, in front with her younger sister and parents in a party in December, 1992, their first year in the US. Photo: Tram Nguyen.

Tram Nguyen, in front, is with her younger sister and parents at a party in December, 1992, their first year in the U.S. Photo by Tram Nguyen

While she decided towards the end of 2017 that she would run for election to the House of Representatives, it did not become a real campaign until April 2018.

She drove home every advantage she could, especially focusing on being a true representative of the people, a message that resonated with the voters.

She was also helped by the fact that she’d helped many workers, disabled people, victims of family violence, children and veterans as an advocate for five years with Greater Boston Legal Services, a non-profit body working for low income people. She knocked every single door in the region to talk about unsolved problems and what she could do if elected.

Many people volunteered for her, and she also felt residents were excited to see an Asian candidate, emphasizing cultural diversity in the U.S.

Early in October, Tram and other five Democratic party candidates in Massachusetts were publicly endorsed by former President Barack Obama, and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

However, Tram believes that it is her core message that reached voters and helped her win. 

"I was extremely glad and surprised when I won... I did not expect I could beat my opponent with a margin of 10 points," Tram said as hundreds of people came to congratulate her.

The new representative said her key goals would include making healthcare accessible to all, prioritize public education, which had helped her a lot, and assist small size businesses.

She also wants to improve public safety with greater gun control. She said it was unacceptable that there have been 300 mass shootings in just 2018. Seeking long term solutions for the opioid crisis is another key task she has set herself.

Tram Nguyen, left, and her parents and sisters. Photo: Facebook.

Tram Nguyen (R) with her parents and sisters in a Facebook photo.

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