All Over the Map: American immigrant stories in unexpected places
Half a World Away, Vietnamese Build Lives on the American Bayou
Two generations of refugees created their lives on the Gulf of Mexico. But as the seafood industry limps along, these unexpected Americans — and the entire region — are questioning their future.
BAYOU LA BATRE, ALABAMA—An hour after sunrise, the late-August rays bounce off 26 meters of scrubbed white decks on the Little Andrew, where Dung Nguyen prepares his crew for another month of shrimping in the Gulf of Mexico. Sweat seeps through their t-shirts before they’ve even pulled away from the splintered dock.
In the tiny south Alabama town of Bayou La Batre, where boats are frequently named after an owner’s child, the Little Andrew fits right in moored next to the Miss Hannah and Miss Ashleigh. For decades, Nguyen and his crew have regularly called on the port from May to December to offload thousands of kilos of shrimp and stock up on groceries before the next run.
Like other shrimping crews in the bayou, the four men come from fishing families; they tell you with a hint of southern twang that it’s the same work their daddies and granddaddies did.
But unlike most other crews in the bayou, they began life in the United States as refugees from Vietnam.
Now in their 50s and 60s, the Little Andrew’s crew is winding down its back to back, month-long trips. The three older men talk vaguely of retirement, of other business ideas. If they can help it — if every financial risk they have taken for the last 40 years works out — they hope to be the last generation in their families to make a living on the water.
They aren’t the only ones, and places like Bayou La Batre that survive off shrimping are struggling with that dilemma.
The Long Trip to a New Home
The capture of Saigon by communist forces in 1975 prompted a massive exodus from South Vietnam; 15-year-old Dung Nguyen and his family were among the “boat people” who headed out to sea that year in search of permanent rescue. An American military ship found them within a day. Nguyen watched as the family fishing boat drifted off, empty.
“In Vietnam the (Viet Cong) – everything belonged to them. No freedom…” Nguyen recalls. “That’s why we had to leave. Only one thing. Freedom.”
After a few months in Guam, a flight to the United States brought Nguyen, his eight siblings and their parents to Eglin Air Force Base in north Florida, one of four military facilities that processed the early wave of refugees. Some 760,000 more would arrive over the next decade from Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam, fleeing the conflicts in their homelands.
Gulf Coast states resettled about 15 percent of the 130,000 Southeast Asians in 1975. From Florida and Alabama, to Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas, about 20,000 refugees found a new home in the area, often with help from churches.
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Like many refugees, the Nguyens didn’t have a plan when they left Vietnam other than to get out safely. Once they were in Florida, they moved with other Vietnamese families from the Eglin camp to Panama City, where they had a sponsor in the seafood industry. He employed them for a few months; the fathers and older sons soon found other jobs and saved their money.
“About a year later, my daddy, he bought a shrimp boat. And we started working on the shrimp boat from there,” Dung Nguyen remembers.
“Eventually people find their way to the place they feel the most comfortable and find work.”
– Daniel Le, BPSOS
The government didn’t match refugees with locations similar to their hometowns in Southeast Asia intentionally. For some, it was luck that they ended up in Florida. Others relocated there on their own, says Daniel Le, who runs the Gulf Coast branch of the Vietnamese community organization Boat People SOS (BPSOS). It was natural. With little command of English and a skill set tied to life on the water, working in the fishing industry was all some refugees knew.
“Eventually people find their way to the place they feel the most comfortable and find work,” says Le, who is based in the port city of Biloxi, Mississippi, about 80 km west of Bayou La Batre.
A few years after they arrived, the Nguyens bought a bigger boat and slowly grew their business. They became U.S. citizens, building their American lives around the Gulf of Mexico.
Eventually, during a visit to Biloxi, Nguyen met his future wife — a fellow refugee from Vietnam. The couple started a family in Florida; by 2001 they had two children and plenty of ambition. That year, Nguyen commissioned a new shrimp boat and named it after their youngest son: the Little Andrew.
Life on the Bayou
Bayou La Batre is small-town south, where the advice to find the boat captain you’re looking for is “just go on board and holler.”
When the Little Andrew calls on this port in the middle of the season to deliver 25,000 kilos of shrimp, Nguyen and his crew aren’t the only Southeast Asians. At the last census in 2010, 2,558 people live in Bayou La Batre; a quarter of them are Asian. In the entire state of Alabama, only 1.4 percent of nearly 4.8 million residents claim that identity.
Like the bayou-born population, the refugees found a livelihood in every part of the seafood industry that drives this town’s economy.
“What they found in common was work ethic, and a love of this particular kind of work,” says Frye Gaillard, who wrote about the refugees’ arrival in his book, “In the Path of the Storms.”
“For a lot of people that was a way of crossing the cultural divides,” says Gaillard.
In the bayou, the men mostly work on or near the water, catching the seafood and getting it to land. The women made a place for themselves around the cold steel tables inside the processing plants, working on teams with bayou-born colleagues. They start their days before dawn picking meat from crabs, shucking oysters and cleaning shrimp. Ask about days off and you’ll get a laugh.
With few assets and families to feed, Southeast Asians quickly established themselves as relentless workers in a field where payment is by the kilo produced.
“Without them here now, I don’t know what business would be left.”
– Dominick Ficarino, shrimp wholesaler
That influx of extra hands to haul shrimp and prepare crabs for wholesale was great for the industry, says Dominick Ficarino, who buys shrimp from the Little Andrew and employs a staff that includes former refugees and younger generations of Southeast Asians. “It’s really given us a good line of support for help,” adds Ficarino, “because without them here now, I don’t know what business would be left.”
Demographics for shrimping captains and crews aren’t available, but federal data show about one in four shrimpers on the Gulf of Mexico is linked to the Southeast Asian community, at least in name. A 2009 analysis of 1,853 federally-permitted shrimping boats by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Southeast Regional Office points to an estimated 26 percent of owners with Southeast Asian surnames.
John Williams, Executive Director of the Southern Shrimp Alliance, estimates that of his organization’s regional members — between 1,000 and 3,000 every year — up to 50 percent are Southeast Asian.
The transition to American life wasn’t flawless. Beers in hand, locals in the bayou will tell stories about knife fights in the early days after the refugees arrived. In 1981, members of the Ku Klux Klan white supremacist group burned the boats of Vietnamese-American fishermen in Texas’ Galveston Bay. A lawsuit filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center on behalf of the refugees cut the terror campaign short with a court order.
In the racially tense South, “tensions… never rose to the point of the KKK with African-Americans,” says Le of BPSOS. But Gaillard, a university instructor who lives near Bayou La Batre, says that decades later, “If you want to find bigotry down there, you can find it.”
“There have been scattered acts of discrimination, but on the whole, it’s home,” he says. “It’s the place where they found sanctuary and safety.”
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Ficarino employs a staff that includes former refugees and younger generations of Southeast Asians. He and other locals will tell you repeatedly: in many ways, the refugees raised the bar on seafood production in the area.
“Dung and I have been working together for quite some years,” says Ficarino. “There’s nobody I’d really think of a whole lot more than I think of him. He’s a hard worker. What he has today, I’ve watched him earn.”
The Next Generation
The next generation may not even have the choice.
Devastating weather like Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the 2010 BP oil spill, and the boom in shrimp imports from overseas – including, ironically, Vietnam – leave a question mark hanging over towns like Bayou la Batre. The U.S. has increasingly relied on seafood imports, leading to an annual seafood trade deficit of more than $10.4 billion, according to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration data. Shrimp imports increased 12 percent to almost 568,000 metric tons from 2013 to 2014, by the agency’s statistics.
“We take jobs where you get up in the morning and you open the door and it’s water. That’s what we like to do.”
– George Earl Bosarge
More shrimp, especially farmed products, drive down earnings for American business owners. In the heyday of shrimping 50 years ago. “You weren’t going to get rich, but you were your own boss,” says John Williams of the Southern Shrimp Alliance. It makes sense that parents wouldn’t want their children to be a part of what is now a struggling industry.
Despite efforts to diversify Bayou La Batre’s economy, like a renewed focus on ship-building, not even the city’s new mayor feels confident in its future.
“I do agree that there is a shift going on,” Annette Johnson says. “A lot of it is that our young people… do not like working in the seafood production. They would rather do other things. And so they leave our community.”
Not every parent working on the water wants a different life for their children. One shrimp boat captain lets his son work as a deckhand during summer vacation. Another bayou native, George Earl Bosarge, builds commercial docks. He says he’d be happy for his offspring to follow his lead.
“It’s our life, that’s who we are, to work on the water, be on the water,” says Bosarge, a member of one of Bayou La Batre’s founding families. “We take jobs where you get up in the morning and you open the door and it’s water. That’s what we like to do. We love it.”
Both men were born into their line of work. Standing on the dock behind his shrimp processing plant, Ficarino will tell you it’s a hard life his father and grandfather did before him. In separate conversations, he and Nguyen admit they log hours in and around the water so their children won’t have to.
“(Dung) feels a lot like I do about his children coming up in the industry,” says Ficarino, who commutes an hour from Mobile every day to the bayou. He also owns the Miss Hannah and Miss Ashleigh. “I wanted my children to go to school and see other children’s parents that were doctors, lawyers, and other things totally different than what I grew up to see. I would like to see them go a different direction in life.”
“I want (them) to go to school… I don’t want (them) on the shrimp boat like my daddy.”
– Dung Nguyen
When Nguyen’s children were young, he would let his sons explore the decks and fish off the backs of boats named after them – the Little Andrew and the Captain Christopher. But he and his wife were strict about one thing: the boys’ futures would not be on the Gulf.
“I want (them) to go to school… I don’t want (them) on the shrimp boat like my daddy,” says Nguyen.
That was clear to 20-year-old Christopher, now a business student in Florida. His brother Andrew is 18 and studies engineering.
“For as long as I can remember, both of my parents have explicitly expressed to my brother and I that they want us to go to school and get an education and to stay away from the fishing business,” Christopher says.
“Every summer I would ask if I could go on a trip with him just to experience it but to this day he has still yet to let my brother or I go… He doesn’t want us anywhere near it.”
Choosing to Stay
And not every child wants to leave.
Von Larson grew up in the bayou. Born in Laos, her family fled to a Thai refugee camp. When she was 3, they went to Port Arthur, Texas, and eventually, to south Alabama for work. For years during high school, Larson says she worked inside Bayou La Batre’s seafood processing plants on weekends and during summer vacation.
“I just made sure I picked (crab) really fast,” she remembers. But Larson also asked a lot of questions, and paid attention to how her bosses ran the shops because, she says, “I knew I wanted to be on the other side.”
So with money saved, she and a business partner bought a company on Shell Belt Road, across from the docks and processors, and started to sell seafood. When Hurricane Katrina wiped out her building and devastated businesses throughout the bayou, she began translating for insurance agencies that needed to communicate with immigrant families in the area. A few years ago, she changed careers again.
The restaurant she now runs with the help of her husband, brother and parents, was successful enough to expand in September to a second location in nearby Mobile. They serve Southern cooking and southeast Asian dishes, in a style that is less about fusing the two cuisines, and more about giving diners both options. At Von’s, a hungry customer can chase a steaming bowl of Vietnamese pho with a rich, dark seafood gumbo (and have a local patron correct you when you call it “soup.”)
“The American dream is attainable, you just have to organize yourself to get all of it,” says Larson, her Southern upbringing clear in her heavy drawl.
“It’s not going to come to you, you just have to strategize and be like, ‘hey this is going to work; this is not going to work’… Failure’s part of it.”
If you ask to go slightly off-menu, Von will fry up Gulf shrimp to serve atop a sweet-and-sour rice dish she says fuses Asian heritage and American life.
“Alabama definitely is my cornerstone of where I want to be.”
More from Bayou La Batre
Von Wesson Larson fled Laos as a child. Her family found refuge in Southern Alabama, and she worked her way up in the seafood industry to become a small business owner there.
Cambodian soldiers had to choose when the Khmer Rouge took over: run or die. Heang Chhun chose to run.
When Southeast Asians boarded ships bound for American soil, many had no idea where they were going. The American bayou was an unintentionally fitting match.
About the Project
“All Over the Map” is an ongoing multimedia project produced by VOA’s News Center that explores lesser-known immigration stories and immigrant communities around the United States. Email the team: firstname.lastname@example.org
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About the Reporting Team
Victoria Macchi is a reporter for VOA’s News Center in Washington, D.C. Prior to joining VOA in 2014, Victoria worked as a journalist in the Middle East, South America, and her home state of Florida, where she covered immigration. She is a two-time fellow with the International Center for Journalists, speaks fluent Spanish and French, and is finishing a Masters degree in human rights at Columbia University.
Arash Arabasadi is an award-winning multimedia journalist with a decade of experience shooting, producing, writing and editing. He has reported from conflicts in Iraq, Egypt, the Persian Gulf and Ukraine, as well as domestically in Ferguson, Missouri, and Baltimore, Maryland. Arash has also been a guest lecturer at Howard University, Hampton University, and his alma mater, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He lives in Washington, D.C., with his wife Ashley and their two dogs.