Born Van Anh Dang in Vietnam, Dr. Van Anh Chandler never knew her native country when it was not at war. She was fourteen when she left in April 1975, a few days before the fall of Saigon. Today, she lives comfortably in Camarillo with her husband, and balances raising three small children with her job as an ER doctor.
As a teenager in Saigon, she remembers family conversations around the dinner table, which rarely touched on politics or war. The talk was always about education, her father often harshly admonishing her brother to do better in school. The message was clear – do well in school, get into college, get a draft deferment, don’t die in the war.
Her family was Buddhist but she went to a French speaking Catholic girl’s school a short walk from home. The nuns were strict. Competition was intense. Although she couldn’t help being aware of the war, her focus was always on her studies. The war was just normal background to school – soldiers on the streets, the sound of bombing and gunfire on the outskirts of the city, jets flying overhead, a bomb shelter next to her bedroom.
Her parents kept their plans to flee Vietnam even from their children. One day, on a routine family trip to visit her Uncle’s home near Tan Son Nhut airport, she found herself hustled across the airbase and aboard a U.S. military aircraft.
“We went into this big hollow opening of a plane,” she recalls. “There were just canvas seats along the walls.”
From Saigon, her family was flown to Camp Pendleton. They were among thousands of other Vietnamese refugees living there in tents.
From Pendleton, her family moved to Minona, Iowa. She had a distant cousin living there. And Minona, population 900, warmly welcomed them.
Starting high school there in 11th grade wasn’t easy.
“I remember my first class in American History,” she recalls. “I sat there in tears. I spoke little English. At the end, I just copied down what was said from another person’s notes. I would go home, read the book, take the dictionary out, and just learn.”
From her experience, she believes teaching English is best taught by immersion.
“None of this hold your hand thing,” she says. “If you’re not forced to learn, you won’t.”
Van Anh went on to the University of Iowa and continued on there for medical school. She became an emergency physician she says, “because when people think – ‘My god I need a doctor now. I need a doctor fast.’ That’s my idea of what a doctor is.”
“I like the unknown,” she says. “You don’t know what kind of patient will present to you next. The uncertainty is scary because sometimes you only have moments to decide life and death things. And you better do it right.”
Van Anh’s life is busy. Between shifts in the ER, she takes her kids to school, to extracurricular activities, makes sure they do their homework.
“You just get swept up into things and don’t have time for much else,” she says. But she says it smiling, obviously pleased with her life.
As a teenager in Vietnam, she relates the story of a favorite aunt.
“I remember my aunt coming to visit and teaching me to swim. My aunt had learned to drive and then to swim. It was not something that women in Vietnam did normally. My aunt was very adventurous.”
“Adventurous.” That may be an apt description of Dr. Van Anh Chandler as well.