A Man Named Chau

I wrote this article about friend Mike (Chau) Huynh that appeared in the Generations of Today magazine.

A Man Named Chau

Every person we meet has something to teach us.

Reading time: 6 minutes

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Inspiration comes at times in ways we least expect, so pay heed. Every person we meet—a man named Chau, for example—has something to teach us. My wife, Jeanine, and I came to know Chau through long-time friends Gene and Jan Jones. They were moving from Rochester in 1994 and asked if we might befriend him. “He’s quite a guy,” they said. “You’ll love him.” Jan was a registered physical therapist and had begun working with Chau in 1983, when his physiatrist (doctor of physical therapy) became concerned that his home situation might not be safe.

Chau (Mike) Huynh (pronounced win) was born in Saigon, Vietnam, in 1970, the third of seven children in a relatively well-to-do, entrepreneurial family. The Vietnam War was in full swing. When he was six months old, Chau received immunization shots for the normal childhood diseases. He reacted to one shot with an extremely high fever; the result, tragically, was paralysis and spasticity in both of his legs and one arm. The medical term for his condition is tetraplegia. When this happened, his parents hired a young girl, twelve-year-old Xiem, to live with them and care for their baby boy. (She and Chau live today in their northwest Rochester Habitat for Humanity home.) North Vietnam won the war in 1975, and as the years went along, Chau’s parents feared that the communists might take Chau from them and possibly kill him. They felt, too, that he could receive better physical therapy in America, so on New Year’s Eve, 1981, they put Xiem, Chau, and his brother Trung (Andy) on a refugee boat with the goal of their making it to the United States. (Though Trung was not disabled, his parents felt he had a greater chance for success in the United States than in their home country under communist rule. He would go on to graduate from the U of M, now lives in Minneapolis, and owns a successful software business.)

   The three children were on an overcrowded boat with one-hundred-and-thirty-seven other refugees. They had little food and water and no specific destination. After four days and three nights at sea, they were spotted by a Thai fishing boat; the fisherman towed the refugees near land and gave them much-needed nourishment. The children were placed first in a small refugee camp in Thailand and then moved after a month to a larger camp. Chau says his experiences there were “so, so”—some good, some bad. The three applied to come to the United States and Bob Jones—a Rochester resident who sponsored several refugees—agreed to sponsor them; on September 2, 1982, they arrived in Rochester.

       Xiem, Chau, and Trung moved into a mobile home in the Rochester Silver Lake Travel Trailer Park. Xiem began working for Rochester Meats, where she still works today. A year after coming to Rochester, Chau started grade school at Harriet Bishop Elementary School. Because Chau had had minimal schooling in Vietnam and spoke minimal English, Xiem reported his age as three years younger than his actual age. Xiem met a man with whom she, Chau, and Trung lived for a while, but when he became involved in some unpleasant activities, he left home. That’s when Jan entered the picture. Her first impression of Chau was that of a shy little boy who needed a mom. He was conscious of his limited English and his disabilities. She became not only his therapist but also his surrogate mother. She visited him multiple times a week to perform therapy and talk with him to help improve his English. She recalls, “He was an extremely hard worker. You gave him something to do, and he’d do it. He was never a difficult person in any way. He would never get angry or tell you to go away. And he always was more than willing to do whatever was asked of him.”

       Chau attended John Marshall High School, and during those years he experienced some problems with depression. The term used to describe his condition was “thinking, thinking.” Chau overthought everything; he’d dwell on the negative and how little he could do and how difficult life was for him. He began to see a psychologist, who helped him a great deal; she became another critical cog in his support system. Chau is a fighter for what he believes in. During one of his “thinkings” he wondered why his high school didn’t have doors that he could open by himself. He worked with the Rochester City Council and the local media to bring attention to the problem, and eventually door openers were installed. He worked with Mayor Chuck Hazama, too, to see that cutaway curbs were installed around town so those in wheelchairs could more easily cross streets. He worked with the owner of the city bus company to change its policy of offering bus service to handicapped persons only at certain times to one of making all buses and routes available to them.

       Gene and Jan, who now live a five-hour drive away from Chau, talk with him regularly and visit when they can. They say, “Chau has made us so aware of how difficult life is—for refugees, for handicapped individuals, and for anyone that doesn’t have English as their first language. Most important, he has shown us that you can have joy in life in spite of all of those challenges.”

       Jeanine and I hit it off immediately with Chau. He loves sports and has an amazing knowledge and recall of all sporting-related events. He is up to speed on the latest information technologies—computers, printers, cell phones, and wireless systems, for example. (He can’t believe I don’t know our internet provider’s data transmission rate or my laptop’s processor speed.) He knows much about world and local events. He loves most to laugh and tease. He often calls me Mikey. When Jan was working with him regularly, he would kid her by saying, “You’re looking really old these days,” just to get her goat.

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       My inclination is to be quick to lend a hand to anyone who needs it, but I realize how important it is for Chau to do all he can by himself. Take the simple task of getting into a car. With Chau, I open our passenger door, pull his wheelchair up near the seat, and lock its brake. Chau reaches for the open door with his good arm, pulls himself up, and twists his immobile body to turn his back to the seat, and I then help ease his rigid frame backward into the car. All the while, he’s saying, “I got it. I got it.” He’s often out of breath from the effort he’s expended. “How’re you doing, Chau?” I’ll ask after he’s in the car, and he’ll look up at me with that grin of his and say, “No pain, no gain.”

  Hunan Garden is one of Chau’s favorite restaurants. After dinner and much talking and laughter (we’ve never heard him bemoan his disabilities), he will always tell Jeanine and me “thank you” in a way that lets us know he really means it. As Jeanine and I drive home, after we’re sure Chau has been settled safely in his living room, such a good feeling comes over me. We hope that for part of one evening we’ve helped Chau forget that life’s not fair. We are simply friends sharing a good time. And on days when I feel that things aren’t going my way, I need only think of Chau to know how few my complaints should be. Chau’s story reminds me, too, that there will always be kind, caring people in the world like Bob Jones, Gene and Jan Jones, Xiem, and the multitudes who devote their lives to helping others get through tough times in life. Like them, may we all touch a heart, sometime, somewhere.