The promise of Thi Le

Author: Tommy Tomlinson

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — She twisted in her chair on the floor of the arena, looking at the others in the seats above. She had been through this four times now but she still worried.

Had she done enough?

A lot of these other parents, they drove BMWs and belonged to country clubs. They sent their kids to Europe.

Thi Le sent her kids to work.

Thi (say it tee ) marked the results with the pennants on the wall. At Pho 98, her restaurant in Charlotte, she pinned the pennants right up front.


Notre Dame.


Her first three children — Chau ( choh ), Michael and Linh ( leeng ) — had graduated from three of America’s finest universities.

And now her youngest, VyVy ( vee-vee ), was about to start Notre Dame as a freshman. Thi had come along to help VyVy move into her dorm. She was living downstairs from football legend Joe Montana’s daughter.

Customers back in Charlotte saw the pennants on the wall. But they did not see Thi and VyVy waking early that last day at home, driving to Thi’s new restaurant in Rock Hill, doing prep work for lunch because Notre Dame was gaining a student but Thi was losing a waitress.

At 7:30 on her last morning in town, VyVy made five gallons of sweet tea.

Now they sat together in Notre Dame’s basketball arena, waiting with other students and parents gathered for freshman orientation. Thi felt that empty feeling coming, the feeling of a child leaving home.

Four times now. This time the last.

Had she done enough?

Thi remembered a time — not that long ago — when she had never heard of Notre Dame, or Harvard, or Duke.

She had not understood what her kids would have to do to get there. She had not known what she would have to do to make it happen.

But she had known one thing.

She had promised.

*Taking chances
  • They were riding home from a family trip. Chau was maybe 12 and Michael was maybe 9 and they had picked at each other the whole way.They were bragging about their favorite schools. Chau said Harvard was the best. Michael said Notre Dame was better.
Bet you a thousand dollars you don’t go to Notre Dame, Chau said. Bet you a thousand dollars YOU don’t go to Harvard, Michael said.

Later, Chau came to her mother and asked: _Can I go to Harvard one day?

_ And Thi said: _Honey, you come up with the grades and I come up with the dough.

_ Thi had learned as a child to do what she promised.

She grew up Thi Nguyen ( wen ) in a village in South Vietnam. Eight children in all. Thi and four sisters sleeping in one bed.

Her father gambled and so her mother supported the family. Every morning Thi’s mom woke at 4 a.m. and walked two miles to the trucks unloading produce. She bought bananas and cabbage and sweet potatoes to resell at the village market.

Thi’s mother counted on her to help. But one morning Thi wanted to stay in bed. Her mom pulled on her leg but Thi didn’t budge. Her mother went to the market alone. Only so many vegetables she could carry. Only so much money she could make.

Her mother came back with hurt in her eyes and Thi never slept late again.

In 1975, with the Vietnam War grinding to its end, Thi’s aunt came to the family with an offer. She worked for the U.S. government and could get Thi’s family to America.

But Thi’s oldest brother — a soldier — had been captured by the North Vietnamese. Thi’s parents would not leave until he was released. And her brothers and sisters didn’t want to leave home.

Thi took the chance. She boarded a plane out of Vietnam with her aunt, her grandparents and a cousin. She was 16.

A connection in America found them a sponsor in Lawndale, near Shelby. They worked on a farm. Thi cut grass and fed cattle. She carried a dictionary and asked people to show her every new word she heard.

Sometimes Thi went to Charlotte to shop at an Asian market. One day she met another South Vietnamese refugee, a man named Xuan ( swon ) Le. In Vietnam he had been on a special military police force; now he was a janitor at the Celanese plant in Rock Hill.

There were not many Vietnamese in the Charlotte area then. Xuan and Thi married in February 1978. Xuan’s family had one request before the wedding — they were Catholic and asked Thi to convert.

She soaked up her new faith. She came to believe you could do anything with God’s help and hard work.

Thi and Xuan had studied America. No matter where you came from, you could get ahead. All you needed was an education.

“Some people, they invest money in the bank, they invest money in the stock,” Xuan says. “We invest our money into our children.”

By 1987, they had four.

Thi and a partner had started a company that made furniture for restaurants. The partner knew the business. Thi knew how to work.

She did office jobs in Charlotte until it was time to pick the kids up from school. She got them home and got them fed and then got back on the road at night, driving as far as Winston-Salem, trying to make a sale.

They took in other family members who needed help. Sometimes there were nine or 10 people in their little trailer.

But still they paid hundreds of dollars a month for tuition at St. Anne Catholic School in Rock Hill. Thi had decided it was the best school for the kids.

And she had promised that her kids would get the best.

*Working harder
  • The children were succeeding. The marriage was failing.

The kids almost never brought home a B. They moved to public schools (St. Anne only goes up to eighth grade) and fit right in. They lived rounded-out lives — soccer and basketball and track and student council.

They studied for hours but they shared a goofy streak. They watched pro wrestling and practiced the moves. Thi kept having to tell Michael not to put the “torture rack” on his sisters.

Thi and Xuan worked. In the moments in between, they no longer got along. She left twice and came back. The third time she stayed gone.

It was 1992. She was a single mom with three kids in private school and a fourth about to start.

The five of them moved into a 700-square-foot house. They had no beds. Two slept on couches and three slept on the floor.

She worked harder, calling on restaurants to buy her furniture. She bought a Volvo station wagon with 170,000 miles on it. She put on 180,000 more.

She pushed herself and she pushed the kids. Over and over she told them: _If you stop and rest, you’ll never be the best.

_ When they rebelled, she made them kneel in the corner for an hour.

When they fought each other, she hit them on the arms with sticks she made them gather from the yard.

That was how it was done in Vietnam. That was the only way Thi knew. It seemed to work. Her kids excelled in school. They stayed out of trouble.

Thi knew other parents in town. They disciplined their kids in similar ways. But Thi noticed something. When their kids went off to college, they never came back.

Chau would be ready for college soon.

Thi had been in Rock Hill long enough to make friends she could trust. They helped her find family counselors.

She learned how to discipline her kids without hitting them. She learned that some children grow faster when you don’t hold on so tight.

As she loosened her grip, the kids bloomed even more. Chau got a perfect score on the verbal part of the SAT; Michael got a perfect score on the math part. Linh was senior class president at Northwestern High. VyVy was student of the year at Rawlinson Road Middle.

Still, Thi worried.

Had she done enough?

Most parents swallowed their darkest thoughts. Thi blurted them out.

When Chau ran cross-country for Northwestern High School, she threw up during a tough race. Thi ran up, panic in her eyes, and said: _Are you expecting?

_ Chau sneaked off to a movie with a boy, and Thi grounded her on the night of a big dance. Michael roughhoused with his sisters, and Thi took away his New Year’s money.

Two years ago she got a bad feeling about VyVy. She was making good grades, she had done nothing wrong, but Thi watched her friends and thought they might get her in trouble.

So Thi sent her youngest child to Massachusetts for boarding school.

Milton Academy cost $30,000 a year. The school took care of some of it, but Thi was already paying off Michael’s loans from Notre Dame and Linh’s tuition at Duke. Her children had gone to some of the most expensive universities in the nation with little financial aid. Thi paid nearly all the expenses herself. She had spent hundreds of thousands of dollars already.

She would work harder.

By now she had three businesses. She was still a partner in Laminated Industries, the furniture business. She owned Windsor Cleaners, a dry cleaner in Rock Hill. And she had opened Pho 98 on South Boulevard in Charlotte. (Pho is a traditional Vietnamese noodle soup; the restaurant opened in 1998.)

She went to bed at 2 a.m. and woke up at 6. It was amazing how much time you had when you didn’t sleep. She served on half the boards in Rock Hill — the Red Cross, the Human Relations Committee, the Cultural Heritage Commission, the hospice advisory board. She built custom furniture for St. Anne. She flew to Missouri to cook for 500 priests who worked with Vietnamese families.

This summer she opened her new restaurant, Thi’s Place on Main in Rock Hill.

Along the way she went to soccer practice and basketball camp and all the other things her kids were involved in.

She banned TV and junk food for Lent. But when Lent was over they gorged at Denny’s and watched the tube all night and laughed until they fell asleep.

She had raised four children who worked nearly as hard as she did. But she had also backed off just enough to let them be themselves.

Michael had bet that Chau wouldn’t make it to Harvard. Chau had bet that Michael wouldn’t make it to Notre Dame.

They both lost.

The pennants went up on the wall.

*Letting go
  • The kids’ faces say Vietnam. Their lives say South Carolina.

Linh won this year’s Miss Lancaster pageant — contestants aren’t required to live there — and at the Miss South Carolina pageant, she got out her guitar and played a Creedence Clearwater Revival medley.

VyVy still talks about the time she touched country singer Kenny Chesney.

Michael works in finance in Chicago but dreams of Bojangles’ chicken. He wrote a letter to the CEO of Bojangles’, begging him to open a franchise in the Windy City.

They keep in touch with their father, who is now a production planner at a corporate offshoot of Celanese. He goes to the kids’ graduations, takes them deep-sea fishing.

They come home to their mom all the time.

“No matter what we kids accomplish, her journey was so much harder,” says Chau, who works in Tanzania at a radio station for African refugees. “We’ll probably never understand all that she did for us.”

Still, the kids have perfected the Le eyeroll — that look they give their mom when she gives them a lecture.

Look, here comes the eyeroll now. It is Thi’s last day at Notre Dame. They sit at a table outside VyVy’s dorm. Michael has come down to visit. He lives two hours away. This means it is his job to watch VyVy.

“If she’s drinking, she ain’t my daughter anymore,” Thi says. “If she’s drinking, she’s your sister.”


“Your little girl’s in good hands,” Michael says. Then he slips in the needle: “… But I guess we’ll see. This is college. You’re supposed to have fun.”

Thi punches his knee: “You’re not supposed to tell her things like that!”

Thi has told Michael to look out for VyVy. She has told VyVy’s roommates to look out for VyVy. She called VyVy’s room at 8 in the morning to make sure she would be ready for orientation.

“How did you know the number?” VyVy says. " I don’t even know the number!"

“I memorize it last night,” Thi says. “I’m telling you, I know things.”

All weekend VyVy has gravitated to her roommates, her new friends, away from her mom. Thi has tried not to hover. As a Catholic, Notre Dame is Thi’s favorite university. But it is also a place where the child stays and the parent goes home.

Just the day before, the dean of first-year students gave a speech and asked parents not to linger on campus:

“You will become your children’s first college professor by modeling for them the great power, the tremendous love, in the act of letting go.”

The Grotto is Thi’s favorite place at Notre Dame. It’s a small cave filled with candles, modeled after the famous grotto at Lourdes. People come all day long to light the candles and say quiet prayers.

Thi knows that VyVy will cry when she leaves. She tries not to think about that. She tries to remember that this is a happy day.

She raised four good kids.

She kept her promise.

Thi has many things to thank God for. The Grotto is not far from VyVy’s dorm. Thi still has a little time, before she has to go.

She gets up from the table and turns to her daughter and points down the path.

“Come on,” she says. “One last walk, baby girl.”

She rode from South Bend through the Chicago traffic to the airport. She had hauled VyVy’s extra luggage on the trip to Notre Dame. Now all she had was her own.

It was after midnight by the time she got in her car in Charlotte. She had another half-hour to Rock Hill. But she could not go straight home. There were things left undone at Pho 98. Papers she had to deal with so the place would run smoothly that day.

One day, maybe after VyVy graduated, she would take a vacation. She would love to see Hawaii. But not now.

She had not yet done enough.

She drove through the sleeping city to the shopping center on South Boulevard. She pulled into the empty parking lot and stopped in front of the restaurant door. It was almost 1 in the morning.

She unlocked the door and went to work.


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