Six years in Vietnamese prison camps taught Harry Nguyen how to survive.

Once a South Vietnamese diplomat used to fine food and French wine, he fought off starvation by scraping rotten and burned rice off the bottoms of kettles. He chewed stringy rat meat and crickets, this man who once taught French in Laos, was a press attache' in Bangkok and a military attache' to Taiwan.

Positions that once commanded respect, such as chief of the Foreign Liaison Office for the South Vietnamese Ministry of Defense, brought only scorn and abuse from his communist captors. Fluency in English and five other languages earned him only derision. He would have gladly traded his bachelor's degree in Chinese literature for medicine to fight off diseases that threatened his life.

When Harry Nguyen, now 59, arrived ill and penniless in the United States, his new country looked like "a dream, like paradise."

The dream turned into another nightmare. "I was a beggar in front of Cook's Supermarket in Falls Church," says Nguyen.

In the 27 months since, he again has had to learn to survive -- this time as a prisoner of cultural disorientation.

"I had difficulty doing it," admits Nguyen, who worked 80 hours a week -- from 7-Eleven cashier to National Airport cleaner -- until he landed a "respectable" job this year counseling other refugees on finding work. He is thankful to the grocery store manager who first promoted him from beggar to bagger. He has learned to savor irony and disregard insult.

"I had humiliation. To be a former diplomat, a high-ranking officer in the military, an educator . . . and then a bag boy in the United States. But I don't care," insists Nguyen. "I make my own money and my own life."

Although Harry Nguyen's trouble in paradise typifies the frustration and cultural vertigo thousands of educated and professional refugees face in the United States, his resilience and success don't.

* Not only must the "executive immigrant," as some experts call them, struggle to rise above the ragtag and illiterate stereotype conjured up by the word "refugee," many suffer more serious transitional traumas than their lesser skilled counterparts.

Beyond the clash of cultures are the psychologically paralyzing effects of crushed expectations. When a former Ethiopian cabinet minister drives a cab to support his family, pride takes a back seat. A Polish surgeon whose best hope is to become a hospital orderly sees only a bleak future.

* "Placing highly qualified and professional refugees in low-level positions is sort of a two-edged sword," says Ken Jaramillo, a refugee specialist at the District's Office of Refugee Resettlement, a federally funded organization that helps refugees find jobs and housing.

"When somebody has really struggled to get out of Ethiopia . . . he doesn't really want to get a job using a broom," says Jaramillo. "They'd like to find something close to their profession."

But refugees in the United States soon discover the premium placed on self-sufficiency. "Our goal is to get them a job right away -- any job," says Jaramillo. "Then provide them backup services, orientation to the community, counseling and English."

Experts stress that difficulties in placing over-qualified refugees in unskilled labor jobs has little to do with numbers -- contrary to occasional public grousing about immigrants taking jobs from unemployed U.S. citizens.

Of the world's 12 million to 16 million refugees, only a small number reach the United States: 67,775 children and adults in fiscal 1985, according to the Office of Refugee Resettlement at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Of the 2,300 of those who resettled in the Washington metropolitan area, as many as 65 percent of the adults, it is estimated, possess skills or professional backgrounds.

Yet, competent and talented refugees often go unemployed for years -- and some never find work.

At Senior Employment Resources (SER), an Annandale-based organization that in April began assisting Fairfax County, Fairfax City, Falls Church and Loudoun County refugees age 45 and over, executive director Robert Revere recalls an "Afghan mid-level bureaucrat in his fifties," with a wife and five children, who spoke little English and hadn't worked in the year since arriving.

"They were making no effort," says Revere. "I told them the American way was to go out and look for work. They said that they were exhausted, that they had walked all the way from Kabul into Pakistan. That just getting here had worn them out.

"I told them that they should put that war behind them because they had a new war to fight now, new challenges to overcome here in the United States."

To help point refugees in the right direction, SER hired Harry Nguyen as senior refugee counselor. "He's a guy who has made up his mind to survive," says SER chairman Jarold Kieffer. "His record of survival is incredible. He came here and decided that he needed bread and butter, so he has done anything he has had to do to get along."

While Nguyen rates language and transportation problems as obvious obstacles to employment for the educated refugee, he says a hidden and more serious obstacle is what the executive immigrants call "face."

Recently, Nguyen offered a respected Afghan doctor a minimum-wage job. "He called the next day to decline the offer," says Nguyen. "They are afraid that they may meet some of their fellow countrymen who will say, 'Such a man who had a high position and now is a lower worker like me.'

"Eventually some of them realize that work is more important than face," says Nguyen, who continues to work two jobs and 80 hours a week, and has bought his own house. "I remind them that most all American people when they first got here were refugees, too."

Former Afghan diplomat Yassur Yakubi, 58, is Oxford educated, studied at the British Institute for Public Administration and speaks fluent English with an aristocratic accent.

* "Since arriving in 1983, I have been trying to get any sort of job, though, of course, I am really qualified as a diplomat," says Yakubi, the former chief of Planning and Information at the Ministry of Media and Culture in Kabul, who now lives in Bailey's Crossroads. "Face" has caused him to turn down some offers, and Yakubi admits leaving other jobs after a short try. "It has been terribly difficult," he says. "I even have driven the taxicabs, but you don't make much money so I have to give it up."

"Saving face" is just one expression for a myriad of psychological and cultural issues the executive immigrant confronts, says Lucia Ann McSpadden, a San Francisco-based anthropologist who has studied adjustment conflicts in resettling the "middle-class" refugees.

Reports of depression and suicide among Ethiopian refugees on the West Coast moved her to interview more than 60 Ethiopians there. McSpadden's conclusion: The "situational ambiguity of the refugee," coupled with life's other normal uncertainties, typically result in "anxiety, discontent, disorientation and bewildering discrepancies between hopes and aspirations and actual achievements."

Of greatest concern to most refugees is self-sufficiency -- tied directly to employment. "Their hopes and fears were explicit," reports McSpadden. "The mark of a good life in this country was to 'succeed by my own efforts,' to be financially self-sufficient, to have a good job . . . Their fears can be summed up in such phrases as 'to be a beggar,' 'not to stand on my own feet,' 'to always be on welfare.' "

McSpadden found that the Ethiopian refugees suffering the highest level of stress were underemployed or unemployed, although their English was adequate. When asked if they knew how to plan toward their idea of a good future, they answered, "go to school" or "get a good job." When asked if they knew how to do that, the refugees most often replied, "no."

"We use jobs basically to provide us with money on the path to success," she notes. "But for an Ethiopian or an Afghan or Iranian, to take a job step downward would mean you were destitute, that you have lost everything. In that social system, it is inconceivable. A job is a status label that can be permanent for life."

The status-bound older refugee, says McSpadden, "starts out with high expectations and then just goes downhill. Very often the wife in the family will get jobs and the father won't do anything."

According to Billye S. Fogleman, an anthropologist in the department of psychiatry at the University of Tennessee, Memphis, how well a refugee develops "adaptive strategies" determines whether he or she survives -- or even prospers -- in this country.

Fogleman investigated the lives of 20 Vietnamese families in Memphis, 14 of whom were professionals. She found that the greater the similarity of the two cultures' values and the more "acceptance and respect the host culture shows to the vocational and cultural aspirations of the immigrants," the easier the transition.

"If a native of the U.S.A. is asked to comment on the Vietnamese, he is likely to stress the hard work he has observed among them," says Fogleman. "When a person shares your same values, you respect him." But Fogleman discovered that while Vietnamese refugees typically say they would take any "honest job," their motivation is apt to be different from most Americans'. "They do it for their family . . . and the future of their children." Says Afghan refugee Abdul Saleem, 50, a former general director of the Department of Teacher Education in Kabul who has worked in Fairfax County as a volunteer library page and a Holiday Inn "banquet houseman:" "We have to accept the new culture and new situations and adapt."

But adapting, he adds tearfully, is difficult. The pressure has broken his marriage. Even though he has "given up face" often, he has learned that "work is work -- fortunately." He again is becoming a survivor. As SER's Kieffer says, "Otherwise, he wouldn't be here."