SACRAMENTO, Calif. – More than 30 years ago, 19 villagers escaped Vietnam at night aboard a 19-foot bamboo fishing boat and headed into the open ocean toward Hong Kong.
Karl Mai, a 17-year-old high school senior, and a few of his classmates were in that boat – leaving behind everyone and everything they knew for the hope of freedom and a better life.
Now an engineer with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Sacramento District, Mai was among Vietnam’s “Boat People” – a term coined by the world press for the almost two million people who escaped from oppression in Vietnam between 1975 and 1985, following the fall of Saigon.
“So many who stayed in Vietnam went to concentration camps and died,” Mai remembered. “We thought we were young and fearless to escape in 1981 … but really, we were just innocent.”
The soft-spoken Mai grew up in a small coastal community near the city of Hue in central Vietnam – a village of farmers and fishermen. His father farmed and his mother helped villagers trade farm goods for manufactured items.
The little fishing boat carrying Mai made it to Hong Kong and a United Nations refugee camp there. Mai stayed in Hong Kong almost 11 months when an American family offered to sponsor him into the U.S.
The Gallob family of Colorado acted as his foster parents in America. His foster father was a veterinarian and his foster mother taught English as a second language.
The Gallobs are of Swedish descent and the family has a long history of adoption, said Mai. Their youngest son, Miles, was adopted from Vietnam as an orphan when still an infant at the end of the Vietnam War.
In tenth grade, while still in Vietnam, Mai had wanted to pursue medicine, but America was a new challenge.
Colorado winters were a big change for a boy raised in the tropics, but the biggest change was the food, he said. “There was a lot of beef, but I was hungry for rice when I first arrived,” said Mai. “There weren’t many Asian markets in Boulder at that time.
“When I saw Uncle Ben’s Rice in a supermarket, I wanted bags and bags of it,” Mai remembered. His foster family explained that it wasn’t necessary to buy all the rice in the store and that they could come back anytime for more.
Classes that depended on a deep knowledge of English were out of the question when Mai had to study with a textbook on one side and an English-Vietnamese dictionary on the other. He had never read or spoken English prior to leaving Vietnam.
“Everything was an adventure and English got easier after my first year and a half of high school,” said Mai. “I learned a great deal from my siblings.
“But math and physics are a universal language,” he said. Mai switched his career focus and attended the University of Colorado in Boulder, majoring in architectural engineering.
He worked to put himself through college, graduated in 1988 and went to work for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Chicago. Four years later, he transferred to the Sacramento District.
He and his wife, Lily, met in Sacramento. She’s also from Vietnam and now operates a pair of nail salons in Folsom.
Vietnam opened to foreign investment in the early 1990s. Mai took his wife to meet his parents in Vietnam in 1995 – though he was definitely nervous about re-entering the country he had fled. Since that time, he has returned to see family and friends every few years.
“Some of the people I grew up with are still farming,” said Mai.
In 1995 his father and mother moved south, outside the former Saigon, now named Ho Chi Minh City. Mai’s mother passed away in 2014. His father, now 95, still lives in Vietnam.
The California family now includes a daughter who’s in her second year at California State University-Sacramento, studying to be a nurse, and a son who is a senior in high school and wants to be a computer engineer.
His Sacramento District co-workers awarded Mai the Hattie Peterson Inspiration Award in 2007 in recognition of his life experience.
“Americans have open hearts,” said Mai. “That’s the big reason I was able to succeed here and I’m very grateful.”