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Annie’s very American smile


There’s more true American spirit in little Annie Nguyen’s smile than in a thousand political proclamations from our November-minded patriots.

The politicians running for state and national office tell us about the American dream, where it is, how they can help us find it or why their opponents are leading us away from it.

I don’t need to hear it.

Because I’ve seen the American dream in the hopeful eyes of a college sophomore, a daughter of a hard-working Vietnamese immigrant and long-time family friend, Hoang Nguyen of Palacios, Texas.

I first met Hoang in 1975 after he fled his native South Vietnam near the end of the fighting there. Hoang, now a devout Catholic, had worked at an American military base. With his beliefs and American sympathies, Hoang wasn’t exactly on the short list for cocktail parties with the communist North Vietnamese.                


He was lucky, though, and made it out of Vietnam. Hoang landed in Iowa, one of the refugees who settled in Iowa through former Gov. Robert Ray’s extraordinary humanitarian program.                

After navigating his way through a series of refugee camps, Hoang arrived in Indianola where my family lived in the 1970s. My parents had adopted an orphaned Vietnamese baby — my sister Jane — and connected with Hoang through a church assistance program.                

While not officially adopted into our family, the then twentysomething Hoang, with a sharp wit and admirable work ethic, was soon part of it.               

To make ends meet, Hoang held a number of jobs.                 

He picked apples in an Iowa orchard. He bagged groceries.                 

Then he was certified by Des Moines Area Community College to weld. That led to a series of jobs welding at nuclear power plants.                

Hoang also worked in the maintenance department for the schools in the Texas Gulf Coast shrimping village of Palacios.                 

His wife, Sac, is a teacher. The couple has three children: Matthew, who works in the nuclear power industry; Sarah, a high school sophomore; and, of course, Annie, a University of Texas student. The children have potential beyond even their parents’ most ambitious dreams.                                  

In recent weeks, I’ve thought a lot about what it means to be American.                 

I’ve listened to grand speeches, read moving accounts and seen the riveting, new movie “Lincoln.”               

But on a dock at Lake Okoboji a few years ago, on the morning following my brother Tom’s wedding, I sat and talked with Hoang and his daughter, Annie (named for my mother, Ann Wilson).                

Hoang smiles a lot for a guy who fixed air conditioners in the Texas heat.                 

I’ve always noticed that.                

But not in the same way I did that Sunday.                

You see, each and every day, whether he had two or 200 air conditioners to fix, Hoang lives life with a remarkable zeal.                

Each day is special to Hoang, because every day is one more day to be an American.                 

He feels fortunate to be an American, and unlike so many of us, understands that being a true United States citizen may be a birthright for some — but that the nation’s best citizens, whether they are born in Vail, Iowa, or Vietnam, earn it every day in ways large and small.                

Being an American is a state of mind. Hoang gets it.                

Through his example, I’ve learned to better appreciate freedom and opportunity. CV

Douglas Burns is a fourth-generation Iowa newspaperman who writes for The Carroll Daily Times Herald and offers columns for Cityview.

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