Donavan Lam of NAPCA, left, and Lam Vuong, right. Photo credit: Khoa Nguyen/Northwest Vietnamese News.
Donavan Lam of NAPCA, left, and Lam Vuong, right. Photo credit: Khoa Nguyen/Northwest Vietnamese News.

SEATTLE – Lam Vuong has been in the United States with his family for five years, just long enough to be eligible to apply for citizenship. But he fears his poor English will fail him if he takes the citizenship test.

Although Vuong speaks three dialects of Chinese along with Mandarin, Vietnamese, and French, he still finds learning English to be his “greatest challenge.”

While many recent immigrants face language barrier, in Vuong’s case, that problem is compounded by his age, financial instability, and lack of familial support.

At 68, Vuong considers himself lucky to have a job as a dishwasher at Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse in Seattle, where he has worked since 2007. His wife, 41, also works there part time.

With their meager wages the couple also supported their children, 18 and 21, while they finished high school. Both graduated this year and one found job at Walgreens and the other at a hospital.

“Things are even harder now,” said Vuong recently. “Our hours have been cut down to twelve a week.”

Because Vuong and his wife have not accrued enough work credits, they do not qualify for social benefits.

Vuong found his job at Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse after training in the Senior Community Service Employment Program (SCSEP) at the National Asian Pacific Center on Aging (NAPCA). The seniors train in different non-profit host agencies, which hopefully can lead to employment. NAPCA pays participants a stipend as they undergo job training and the non-profits get some additional help.

Donavan Lam, SCSEP’s program director, said Vuong is an “SCSEP success story” because he found private employment. But Vuong considers his “success” precarious.

“I didn’t want to come to the United States,” said Vuong. “But my children really wanted to come here for the opportunities here.”

This is not the first time that Vuong has resettled in a different country. He was born in China and immigrated to Vietnam when he was eight years old. He grew up in the Ben Thanh Market area of Saigon, where he was a bookseller before arriving in California in 2004.

Relatives in California sponsored Vuong, his wife and two children. Another child has already settled in Canada and one child remains in Vietnam.

The family first lived in San Jose, Calif. Because his wife was able to find factory work in Seattle, the family relocated to Washington.

Not long after arriving in Washington, Vuong signed up for SCSEP, which an acquaintance introduced him to. Vuong only trained for a few days with a non-profit before taking a janitorial job with a private company.

For nearly one year, Vuong worked the night shift for $3 an hour, slept in the morning, and took English classes in the afternoon at Helping Link, a non-profit that helps recent immigrants adjust to life in US.

Vuong considered returning to Vietnam, because “life is so hard here.” But it would have been an even harder struggle back home without U.S. citizenship and retirement benefits.

Instead, he returned to SCSEP, whose motto is “American Dream is possible for everyone, regardless of age,” and they assigned him to train as an office aide to Helping Link, which regularly works with NAPCA to provide job training for SCSEP participants.

Don Lam said that they wanted Vuong to develop other work skills, so after one year at Helping Link, they transferred him to work as a kitchen aide in another non-profit. By that time, his wife had been laid off from her factory job.

Because many SCSEP participants do not know how to use the Internet, NAPCA staff members look for job openings for their clients. They saw Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse posted a job opening.

“NAPCA told me to go, hurry, apply,” said Vuong. “They couldn’t provide me with an introduction. I had to apply myself.”

Vuong got the job. A few months into the job, Ruth’s Chris was so short-staffed that Vuong was able to refer his wife. They now both work at the restaurant as dishwashers.

“Mr. Vuong works really hard,” said David Mann, a manager at Ruth’s Chris. “He’s always got a smile on his face. He and his wife are a pleasure to work with.”

But with his limited English, Vuong finds it difficult to communicate with his co-workers.

“I just work until my shift is up,” said Vuong. “I never speak to anyone.”

Most of his work is easy enough to understand. For example, when he sees “French fries” written out, he knows he should prepare several crates of French fries.

Though he is thankful for the SCSEP, this “success story” is still worried about his future. These are fears no government social services can alleviate for the elderly.

“I know for sure that I will lose my job; I just don’t know when,” said Vuong. “In the two years that I’ve been here, I’ve seen many people come and go. But because of language limitations, I don’t understand why.”

“When the day’s shift ends, I don’t know if there will be one tomorrow,” Vuong added. “Here, I don’t know anyone. We have only a few friends, and no relatives. It’s lonely. It’s not like in Saigon, when if anything happened, many friends and family would rush to help us.”

If he loses his job, Vuong said would try to look for another one, because he wanted to “continue living the American way of life.”

“But if I can’t find work, if I don’t have anyone to help me, then we’ll have return to Vietnam,” he said, his voice despondent.

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