Innerviews: Vietnam refugee built a bright new life
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- In an era of greed and entitlement and a vanishing work ethic, his story provides pause for thought -- and inspiration.
Ha To Ta, known to most everyone as "Ha," grew up poor on a farm in Vietnam. He worked hard, first on the farm, later in Saigon, where he worked while training as a hairdresser.
At 18, he opened his own beauty shop. Then, the communists took over, took everything.
In 1978, he finally escaped. One of the "boat people," he survived a miserable journey to Malaysia. More misery awaited in the Malaysian refugee camp.
In 1980, sponsored by the Baptist Temple here, he arrived in Charleston, washed dishes in a Chinese restaurant and lived in a one-room apartment with three other refugees.
He eventually earned enough to start Reema's Beauty Shop in Kanawha City. A year ago, the shop moved to a new Kanawha City location. He renovated the place himself, working for seven months after hours.
He loves work. That's what bootstrap success stories are made of.
"I grew up on a farm in Vietnam. Animals were all around. We were a poor family. On the farm, you work and work and you cannot go nowhere. There was no equipment. It was all manpower.
"To go to school, we walked far, far away. My mother always roasted peanuts in the morning, and we would put them in small packets and bring them to school. In the break time, we would stay in the corner to sell peanuts to bring some money home to our mother.
"I didn't have any childhood at all. Always, we had to help our parents. Early in the morning, we would go pick up eggs.
"Farm life was so hard. You would have a good year, then the next year, you would have bad weather and lose it all and have to borrow money and start all over again. It's a difficult life. I told my mother to let me go to the city and try.
"When I was 14, I decided to leave the family and go to Saigon to work and go to school at night. I wanted to get my high school diploma and get a license to work in a beauty shop.
"I worked really hard to save up money. I took any kind of job I could find. When I was 16, I worked in a beauty salon to train to become a hairdresser because it didn't require three or four years of college. Beauty school only took eight months to a year, and then you could make money to support the family, a quick way to help.
"When I was 18, I had earned enough to buy my own shop and move my poor parents and my sister and brother to the city. We supported each other until 1975.
"My parents set up a small coffee shop, and they worked in the coffee shop and I worked in the beauty salon. In 1975, the communists came. They don't allow you to have a business. It's a crime. Everything belongs to the government. They shut you down.
"I had to figure out a way to get out of the country. It took until 1978. It's hard to get out. You have to escape. We tried a couple of times and got caught. My family had to figure out how to get the money to the government to release me from jail. It was hard labor. They work you until you are dead.
"It took me three or four tries to get out of the country. I left in 1978 and made it all the way to Malaysia on a fishing boat. From '76 to '78 a lot of people did that. They called us the 'boat people,' and a lot of people died on the boat.
"My boat was small. They put more than 500 people on the boat. When we got to Malaysia, 119 had survived. We were allowed to carry three days worth of food supplies. The rest of the time, we caught fish and ate them raw. If you cooked them, you would lose all the liquid. I don't even eat sushi now. Anything I eat, I cook.
"From 75 to '78, I had to move from one city to another. There was no united central government. It was local control, individual government, so I had to keep moving. I couldn't stay in one place too long.
"The communists had taken my beauty shop, everything I worked for. I stayed in Malaysia two years in a refugee camp. It was a nightmare. There was nothing there. We had to build our own shelter to live in. We chopped wood to build a home and dug a well for water.
"We were there about a year before the United Nations came and started to supply our food. On the island, we caught fish, and there was wildlife in the camp. Snakes or whatever you could catch, you ate.
"We ate a lot of bugs. The bugs in the coconut trees were good. We would boil them and eat them.
"A lot of people kept coming until 60,000 people lived on that island. We built a hospital, a school and a church after the United Nations came in.
"The first year, we had no medical care at all. We just had to survive. A lot of people got sick, and there was nothing you could do. You would go out in the fields to find some herbs to help.
"The United Nations had a ship come with medical equipment. Sickness was really bad, and we couldn't leave the island.
"The UN sent a delegation from different countries to interview the refugees. From there, the refugees applied for a visa to come to the country. We were illegal immigrants in Malaysia. We had to wait for a country like the United States to come and sponsor us.
"The Baptist Temple was a sponsor, and I came to Charleston. That was November 1980. I flew from Malaysia to San Francisco. I'd lived in those conditions so long, I thought it was beautiful here. I loved it.
"In Malaysia, I learned a little English, enough to survive.
"The church sponsored three refugees, and we lived together in an apartment with one bedroom on the West Side. The second week, they took me to Garnet school to learn English.
"I saw the Chinese Imperial Restaurant. I can speak Chinese. I went to talk to the owner, and they let me work in the kitchen about eight months. I washed dishes, rolled egg rolls, whatever they wanted me to do. They paid me $2 and something.
"They gave me one meal a day. In the refugee camp, I only got one meal a day anyway, so one meal a day here was plenty. I would take it home to eat it for breakfast and lunch.
"While I was working there, I went to beauty school. That took me less than a year. I knew hairdressing, but I had to go to the school to get my license here. When I quit the restaurant, I worked in a beauty shop, New Dawn. I did a lot of maintenance work for the Baptist Temple in the evenings.
"Eight years later, I bought a shop of my own on 52nd Street. I was there 20-some years. Today marks the first year in my new shop. It took me seven months to renovate it. I would work in my first shop and come here in the evenings to work on this one. I work all the time. I love to work. Work is my hobby.
"I met my wife in Charleston. My income was pretty good, so I helped the new refugees, which is how I met her. She came on a visa. Her sister sponsored her to come here. I helped her mother and others, and that's how we met. We married in 1989.
"I sent her to beauty school before we got married. She works here with me as a manicurist.
"We have two boys. Joseph is 23 and graduated with honors from WVU. He has applied to medical school. Jay is 16. He goes to Capital High.
"I never went back to Vietnam. My parents have passed away. I never saw them again, but over the years, we talked.
"We've vacationed here and there, in California, New York, Florida. I'm not leaving here. I love West Virginia.
"Sometimes I dream about all that I went through. It never really leaves you. But I'm doing well now in the United States. I became a citizen 13 years ago."
Reach Sandy Wells at email@example.com or 304-348-5173.