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He stood there, statuesque, leaning slightly against the outside counter of the nurse’s station. His single-pleated khaki dress pants draped lightly over his shiny black shoes. In the large left pocket of his white doctor’s coat covering his pressed shirt and tie was his stethoscope. His elbow rested on the counter as his left hand held the patient’s records. His eyes were intense, studying the patient’s chart, hoping that it would miraculously say something different from earlier that morning. But the chart failed to deliver such a message. There was no change.

Dr. David Nguyen gently adjusted his black-framed glasses, which gave him the look of a professor of great intellect. As the hospital’s chief neurosurgeon, he was not only the hospital’s first Asian American chief of anything, he was also its youngest, a by-product of disciplined academic rigor instilled by a father who demanded it along with high career achievement.

David’s father and his wife had come to the United States during one of the refugee waves after Saigon fell. They had nothing and left so much behind. After settling into Boston, Massachusetts, along with several other Vietnamese refugees, they worked as unskilled laborers and toiled away to try to make a living.

But despite their dire circumstances in a new land where they did not speak the language, they persevered like so many other Asian immigrants. David’s father, Mr. Nguyen, was ambitious despite his challenges. In time, through interactions with Bostonians in the streets and in the restaurants that he worked in, he learned English. His wife, Mrs. Nguyen, was just as astute and picked up English as well. In the wee hours of the night, after their long shifts were over, they would practice with each other. There were no weekends for this husband and wife team, and vacations were far and few in the first few years. They simply worked and only had each other.

Everything changed however when their first son David, was born. Their already challenging life was now filled with an uncharted promise; the future of their family would be secure. This drove Mr. Nguyen to make a courageous decision: to take their entire hard-earned savings and open up a Vietnamese restaurant that would bring the culinary cuisine of his homeland to Boston.

The first two years were grueling. The Nguyens found themselves at the budding restaurant daily. They were in a city when the Chinese were dominant, and Szechuan-style cooking and General Gao’s chicken were all the rage among the white populace. But the fledging Vietnamese restaurant took hold as it catered to a growing Vietnamese populace who missed the flavors of their homeland. Like the Nguyens, many of them worked long hours. They indulged in the convenience of ordering from a restaurant to get flavors of home.

More often than not, David was at the restaurant. Ever since he was an infant and for as long as David could remember, he had grown up in that restaurant and watched his parents working and sacrificing their youth to build a future for him. But soon, it just wasn’t him, as Tracy entered into the world as the baby sister, and soon thereafter, baby Nicholas. It was widely rumored that baby Nicholas was a mistake, stoked from a night of passion to release the bottled-up happiness when the receipts for the restaurant that night were the most they had ever seen.

Regardless of the circumstances, the Nguyens were now a family of five, and the need to work even harder became a necessity. That work ethic was passed down into the children’s studies, and the Nguyen children were expected to excel in their academics. The children were sequestered each and every day, and Mrs. Nguyen dispensed the academic routine to the children. The first priority was absolute mastery of the English language to spare them the ridicule their parents endured from unkind people who enjoyed mocking their accented and broken English when the parents first started to learn English.

The children excelled academically. The highest expectations were for their firstborn, David. He was going to be a doctor. Not that that was David’s dream, but rather, it was his parents’ dream. The parents couldn’t have lived the lives they had wanted and could not fathom the opportunities that their children had. All the parents knew how to do was to sacrifice their sweat, muscles, joints, pain, and personal dreams for their children and to live vicariously through them. Their need for their children to have a better life and fulfill the American dream was the driving factor for Mr. Nguyen to demand nothing short of academic success for his children, especially David.

Being in the South Vietnamese army, the primary reason why he felt he had to flee to the U.S., he was a true disciplinarian. He would berate his children unrelentingly when their grades did not meet his expectations, and he did not tolerate any excuses. It was his children’s obligation as Vietnamese sons and daughters to do well in school. And it worked. The Nguyens created three class valedictorians and got them into some of the best colleges.

Every now and then, Mr. Nguyen would break from his military style of rearing his children and remember that they were children. It was at that occasional family outing to a beach in Quincy where the children saw the doting father. But that side of their parents, the sympathetic and more compassionate side, was usually expressed by Mrs. Nguyen. Though she did not expect anything less of her children, she was the loving smile of the family and offered them comfort.

When David got into Harvard Medical School, his academic success became the pride and joy of the Nguyens. Though his younger siblings, Tracy and Nicholas, who preferred to simply go by as “Nick,” were proud, they also resented their elder brother’s success because it meant trying to surpass a bar of expectation that may be insurmountable.

However, David’s upbringing and the extra discipline that he had to endure as the firstborn were ingrained into his competitive soul. In the end, he became an extension of his father and sought to achieve what his father couldn’t. He aced his years in medical school; raced through his residency with a tenacity that brought admiration from seasoned doctors; and through a combination of keen medical insight, hard work, chance, and luck, he became the hospital’s chief neurosurgeon. It was an achievement that his parents took much pride in, since their son’s future was now secure.

As David stood there against the nurse’s station, he flipped over another page. His consternation was still the same, intense and quiet. The patient had suffered swelling to his brain. It was ultimately relieved, but not before the patient went into a coma. All neurological scans were inconclusive. The inconclusive data could not determine a prognosis. The patient had simply fallen silent and was only alive due to the mechanical devices that tended to his life.

David was puzzled and paid close attention to this patient. He looked over and gazed into the patient’s room and could see him lying in the bed. The white sheets were gently drawn midway up to his chest. He was wearing a white-and-blue-patched hospital gown. His arms lay by his side, waiting for orders from their host that might possibly never come again. His hands were worn, leathered by hard restaurant labor. The skin on his face clung loosely to his bones, clearly showing the shape of his skull. Gray hair had infiltrated his once-blackened eyebrows and his limp hair, which was neatly combed to one side. A breathing tube clung to his emaciated face, a sign of his weakened state. How ironic that David, the chief neurosurgeon, found that he could do nothing for this patient, his father.




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