Slightly more than a year ago Hua Ton, 36, was a wealthy chemical importer lviing in Saigon on a $200,000 five-story mansion, complete with small nightclub.
Today he is a men's wear salesman at the Hecht Company at Tysons Corner, earning $2.78 per hour. Hua, his wife, Muoi, 40, and their four sons live in a small, sparsely furnished house in Falls Church. It is the size of his bedroom in the family's former Saigon house, he says.
Of the $10,000 in gold Hua managed to smuggle out of Vietnam when he and 62 others escaped from a fishing village at night, he said only $300 remains. Hua said he spent $7,000 in 10 months supporting his large family in a squalid, snake-infested refugee camp in Thailand while awaiting entrance to the U.S.
Hua and his family are but a few of the 15,000 Indochinese refugees who have gained special entrance to the country in recent months. They are known by authorities as "boat people" the most desperate of the refugee cases because they made perilous nighttime escapes from Vietnam aboard rickety fishing boats. Often they drifted for days on the South China Sea with little or no food or water before reaching a country that would grant them asylum.
Like Hua and is relatives, the boat people say they were forced to flee because they were identified as American sympathizers under a Communist regime and feared for their lives.An additional 4,700 boat people are still seeking admission. Since the fall of Saigon in 1975, officials estimate that at least 7,000 Indochinese refugees have come to the Washington area, mostly settling near relatives in Northern Virginia.
The officials say that the refugees - many of whom were professionals in Vietnam - are "under-employed," working for low wages as clerks and at dishwashers and hotel maids where knowledge of English is not essential and no previous job experience is required.
Ten weeks ago Hua and members of his family were part of the first group of boat people ot arrive at Dulles Airport, sponsored by the Columbia Baptist Church in Falls Church. The church furnished the modest three-bedroom house and is paying the $350 in rent and utilities through March. Arfter that Hua who says he takes home $350 per month must support his family himself.
It is a fact that keeps him awake nights, worrying, he said recently as he sat in his living room and sipped the tea his wife had brewed.
Hua, who began working at Hecht's 10 days after he arrived, said he now spends close to $300 each month on food for his family. That leaves about $50 for all other expenses.
"I'm afraid I can't support my family," he said, "in Vietnam I came to an office and worked. I only know how to arrange a firm." Hua said he left three cars, including a Mercedes, and $1 million in savings behind in Vietnam.
"Some Americans ask me why I don't try to find a job (suitable to my background). I look through the news papers but I don't see anything. They always say 'needs experience' or that my English isn't good enough. I wonder what they would do (if the situations were reversed)."
Hua said he does not want to apply for welfare because he doesn't want to be a "burden to Americans." "I want to have any training I can so I can get a better job and improve my English," he said self-consciously. "But I can't do that or get a part-time job because my schedule changes every week."
Muoi Hua, who sat quietly beside her husband, has been looking for a job in a factory or restaurant. Hua said she has been hampered in her search because she speaks little English.
Hua said he has also tried unsuccessfully to find after-school jobs for his three teen-age sons who attend George Marshall High School. "Most days they come right home after school. They don't have many friends," he noted. On the weekend, Hua said, his sons hang out at Tysons Corner.
Unlike many Vietnamese parents who are quite distressed by their childrens' adoption of American ways, Hua encourages it. "I want them to take on all American ways, so they won't have to rely on anyone," he said.
Hua said he and his family keep largely to themselves and don't socialize with other Vietnamese. "We don't go anywhere except to buy food," he said. "When you go anywhere you see something and want to buy it and it's not a good feeling when you can't."
Last month Hua's brother, who lives in Alexandria, bought him a new car. Muoi Hua and her sons spend a lot of time watching the portable color television his brother, who escaped in 1975 during the American airlift, lent them.
Like many refugees, Hua said he is haunted by memories of the refugees camp and his escape. During the escape Hua repeatedly smothered his infant niece into unconsciousness so that she wouldn't cry and alert guards posted along the waterfront.
He shows a visitor color snapshots of his family posed outside their makeshift tent pitched in the middle of a cemetery in the camp. "I think every Vietnamese is homesick," he said slowly. "They think about friends and relatives. It takes a long time to forget."