For 46, May Tran looks great.
For someone who died 38 years ago, she looks mahhhvelous.
Tran is animated and excited as she sits behind her desk and lays out the changes she has in store for the Triangle Radio Reading Service in Raleigh, where she serves as executive director.
The reading service, founded in 1983, provides on-air readings for thousands of blind and hard-of-seeing people who have a special radio or access to the internet. Volunteers read news and human interest stories, columns and books to people across North Carolina and the country who would be lost without it.
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Tran was lost, at sea, before she came to this country as a refugee – ooooh: there’s that word again – as part of the boat people who fled Vietnam after the communists took over. By some estimates, more than 800,000 Vietnamese high-tailed it out of there between 1975 and 1995. Thousands perished on the voyage, overcome by weather, rough seas, illness and pirates.
Tran was one of those who perished, albeit briefly, according to her account.
When I met with her recently, she talked passionately about the lifeline the reading service provides for people who are blind or who don’t see well enough to read. She talked about what kind of help the non-profit needs – mainly moolah! – and how it depends entirely on grants and contributions from civic organizations, corporations and individuals. What it makes from its New Visions Gala fundraising banquet this Friday at the Renaissance Hotel North Hills accounts for a quarter of its annual budget.
Near the end of our conversation, Tran told me that she and her family escaped Vietnam when she was 7, and then, just as nonchalantly as you please, she mentioned that she’d died on the trip over.
In newspaper lingo, we have a term for that. It’s called burying the lede.
First, the escape: Her family and others, she said, had made plans to escape the communist regime in the middle of the night on a boat and were supposed to meet up with a supply boat. That boat, with their food, water and medical supplies, was captured, she said, when one of the men escaping with them changed his mind mid-escape, swam back to shore and began screaming. Vietnamese coast guard boats came after them but they got away, she said.
They drifted in the ocean after the over-burdened boat’s engine died.
Soon thereafter, she died, too.
No, really. That’s what she said.
Tran said her father, Tu Hong Tran, a doctor, “told me he couldn’t find any pulse... He just let me lie there for three days. Sometimes he would massage me. After that, I woke up.”
Not exactly, as I learned after talking with her more. “My parents,” she said, “had to guard my body because some of the people wanted to eat me.”
Some of the more compassionate, less carnivorous passengers “told my mom to throw my body overboard” to prevent Tran from becoming an entree, she said. Her mother, Con Thi Chau, “prayed that we would sink so we would die peacefully.”
Rescue, then wait
The boat didn’t sink, but it drifted with a dead engine for 31 days. They survived, she said, on fish and rainwater before an Indonesian coast guard boat rescued them. “They repaired the engine and gave us a compass and food and fuel and sent us on our way,” she said. “My mom was terrified that something would happen to us again.”
Something did happen to them, but most of it was good. They reached a Malaysian refugee camp at Kuching, where they stayed for two years, and then were adopted by the wonderful Binkley Memorial Baptist Church in Chapel Hill. “They opened their house and arms to us and made us feel welcome,” Tran said.
Two doctors to whom I presented Tran’s case theorized independently of each other that she most likely was in a coma and her pulse had simply slowed to a point of being undetectable without medical equipment. She wasn’t really dead, they said, but acknowledged she would have been had she become supper.
Tran said her family eventually opened a Vietnamese restaurant in Raleigh, and she opened a flower shop with her brother before going to work with Triangle Radio Reading Service. “The second-hardest thing in my life was telling my brother I was not going to be working with him at the flower shop” after accepting the new job, she said.
What was the hardest?
“When I told my mother I was not going to be a chemist,” she said. “I was the first girl in the family to graduate from an American college, and it was her dream to have a chemist” in the family.
That dream went up in a test tube of smoke, she said, when she was studying at Warren Wilson College near Asheville and discovered that she was allergic to certain chemical compounds. She had completed the five-year course in four years – “My mom believed that college should take four years,” she said, laughing – and had gotten a job at Glaxo Wellcome before realizing she couldn’t be around some compounds.
It’s hard to imagine that Tran would’ve made a better chemist than director of Triangle Radio Reading Service. She has continued the outreach the organization had under Linda Ornt – they both have invited me to read to their subscribers – and expanded it. Ornt led the group for 15 years before retiring in 2012.
I love what I do. I don’t even want a day off.
Plans are afoot to update the current cramped offices on Six Forks Road, and she has added 13 programs, including Que Pasa – which reads that Spanish-language newspaper for the Latino community – and S.A.V.E. (Salute A Veteran Every day), a monthly program in which military veterans of World War II, the Vietnam War and other wars are interviewed.
“I love what I do,” she said. “I don’t even want a day off.”
Neither do many of her co-workers and volunteers. “When we’re off,” she said, “we call each other just to talk.”
Tran has been married 20 years to Quang Tran, a mechanical engineer. He, too, was a refugee who made the watery exodus on a rickety boat, but he was one of the lucky ones. He was only in a refugee camp for a little more than two months, Tran said, before making his way to California and eventually to North Carolina.
The saddest thing, for anyone familiar with history, is that the travails of May Tran and her family were not unique – hundreds of thousands probably have equally harrowing stories – and that they mirror what is happening to refugees today who are risking everything while fleeing war and murderously repressive governments to get a toehold in the greatest country on earth.
When one looks at the industriousness of the Tran family, it’s hard to imagine anyone thinking America would be better off without it. The Trans are lucky, of course, that nobody back then was trying to build a wall to keep them out.
Near the end of our conversation, Tran told me about the time last summer, during a trip to Disney World, when her 5-year-old nephew asked if it were true that she’d “died.”
Yes, she told him.
“Auntie, why’d you come back?”
“I told him ‘So I can love you,’ ” she said, laughing.
He was happy after that, she said.
So, I’m guessing, are thousands of vision-impaired residents who depend upon the Triangle Radio Reading Service for intellectual sustenance and a light in what would otherwise be a perpetually dark world.
If you want to find out how to be a light to TRRS and the people who depend on it, make a donation or attend Friday’s gala, go to www.trianglereadingservice.org or call 919-832-5138.