Watercolor painting instructor Tony Tran epitomizes the immigrant success story – and then some. Fleeing with his family at the age of 11 from Vietnam during the fall of Saigon in a harrowing escape, Tran and his family landed six weeks later in a small town in Northern Indiana where they would start a new life.

Tran would go on to adjust quickly to life in America, be chosen as the Valedictorian of his high school, and earn a bachelor’s degree in Urban Studies and Art History at Stanford University and a Master of Architecture degree at UCLA. He is now an architect, planner, artist, illustrator and teacher. He also plays the violin and performs in orchestra concerts with his son Thllan, also a violinist.

The following is an Tony’s account of his life as a refugee from childhood to now. You can also read an account by Tony’s parents of life in Vietnam, their escape from Vietnam and subsequent arrival in Indiana.

By Tony Tran

When my family arrived in the U.S. in the summer of 1975, we started our new lives in the small town of Mishawaka, Indiana. This quiet, suburban town in the Midwest had a totally different character from my former hometown in Viet Nam, Saigon, which was a bustling, noisy place full of energy and excitement. I was 11 years old, my brother Phong, 10, and our sister Thao, 3.

Tony Tran as a baby with his parents in Banmethuot, a small community in the Vietnam (1965).

Being 11 was a pivotal age and a critical factor in my development and experience of living in the new county. I was old enough to still remember a lot of Viet Nam, and retain its culture and language, but young enough to be able to assimilate and adapt to my new society without many problems.

Not surprisingly, learning English was a big concern at first. My brother Phong and I took English classes with a tutor during the summer of 1975 before starting school. I started 6th grade that fall. I was the only Vietnamese kid in school, so I learned English quickly. That first winter was very severe, with record breaking snows and blizzards – quite a shock for us coming from the tropical, humid climate of South-east Asia. I remember how hard it was for us to wake up early to go catch the school bus when it was freezing cold and still dark outside, and how happy we were on some mornings finding out on the radio that school was closed due to snow conditions.

Socially, my adolescent teen age years had its share of ups and downs, some of which were normal and typical for all confused teenagers all around the world, while others were compounded by the fact that I was from Viet Nam, and therefore “different” at the onset, no matter how hard I tried to become “American.”

Academically, I did quite well, eventually becoming valedictorian for my high school class. Television, books and movies also helped in my smooth transition, as did my interest in popular music. When I was 16 years old, I attended a powerful, 4 hour long Bruce Springsteen rock concert at Notre Dame University in South Bend. That inspiring concert has been one of the central moments of my life, and I have remained a life-long fan of this artist’s work.

My experience was largely determined by my age, and where we lived in the U.S. Since there were so few Vietnamese people in Indiana at that time, I went through a period of very rapid assimilation and Americanization during my middle school and high school years.

After our family moved to San Diego, California, and I began university at Stanford and later in graduate school at UCLA, I started to rediscover and explore my Vietnamese roots. The fact that there is a large Vietnamese community in California – indeed, the largest outside Viet Nam – helped me in the process of reclaiming my native heritage. Probably being more mature also had something to do with it. My rediscovery of my Vietnamese roots came full circle when I came back to Viet Nam to marry my wife Trang (Emily).

After attending Stanford and UCLA where I earned a Master’s degree in Architecture, I began to work at the firm of Moore Ruble Yudell Architects & Planners (MRY) based in Santa Monica, in 1990. One of my favorite local buildings is the Santa Monica Public Library, designed by MRY. Currently I am Project Architect at the firm of Egan Simon Architecture (ESA) in Playa del Rey, working on diverse interesting projects, many of which are in the public sector including affordable housing for families, housing for seniors and the homeless, and several projects for the Los Angeles Unified School District.

A watercolor painting of St. Monica’s Church in Santa Monica, by Tony Tran. 

I am lucky to have been able to find a career that combines several of my passions – drawing, illustration, art, history, urban design, travel, work cultures, the environment. In 2006, I successfully became a licensed architect in California, and afterwards, joined the American Institute of Architects (AIA). My younger brother and sister have also achieved successful, fulfilling lives and careers in their adopted homeland. Phong attended UC Berkeley and worked for the Red Cross in India. He is now working at the Library of Congress in Washington DC. Thao has followed her interest in fashion design and is now co-partner of a highly regarded firm based in Los Angeles.

I consider myself very fortunate to have had such a rich, cross-cultural experience. Psychologically and emotionally, I am now comfortable being both Vietnamese and American, and can easily switch back and forth between these spheres. In December 2006, we took our 7- year old son Thilan back on a memorable trip to all 3 regions in Viet Nam (North, Central and South), and in October 2007, I took him to his first rock concert – performed by Bruce Springsteen. So I hope that my son would also learn to appreciate and be able to put his unique, diverse background to positive and meaningful. I wonder how similar or typical my family’s refugee experience has been compared to those other immigrants of our generation.

November 10, 2007, updated on December 3, 2017
Tony Tran, AIA


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