In her hometown of Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, Ha Nguyen Myers had a pretty good grasp of English.
Then she emigrated to the United States.
“I was speaking Vietnamese English, not American English,” she said. “I came here and no one understands me and I don’t understand them. My English was not like I thought.”
Born and raised in the bustling city of more than 8 million residents, Myers moved to Washington County in 2014 after meeting and marrying Bentleyville resident Stephen Myers.
While the couple had no trouble communicating, Myers, petite and youthful at 35, felt isolated from the rest of her community. It wasn’t the cows grazing outside or the dark that descended at 6 p.m.
When Myers left Vietnam, she left her language, culture and the family business in Ho Chi Minh City – a bridal salon and factory. Retail is her passion.
“I came here and I lost every confidence I had,” she said. “Without language, I don’t know how to start. I was sad about my future life.”
Encouraged by her husband, Myers searched for English-as-a-second-language classes, but most were expensive. When she found free ESL instruction offered by the Literacy Council of Southwestern Pennsylvania, she was skeptical.
“In Vietnam, free is not good at all,” she said.
Figuring she had nothing to lose, Myers attended a class in Washington. She’s attended faithfully every week since. They talk, they read – a biography of George Washington and “The Diary of Anne Frank” – and they discuss whatever happens to come up.
“I came here with zero hope,” she said during a break between the morning and afternoon sessions. “If you saw me three years ago, maybe I couldn’t say three sentences. Now, I’m more confident to show you what I think. This is not just ESL. This is the culture class.”
One of the more than 780,000 immigrants living in Pennsylvania, Myers said learning the culture of her new home – the shared attitudes, customs, values and morals – is just as important as learning to communicate. And she’s not satisfied just knowing facts.
“My husband, he explains things the guy way,” Myers said with a laugh. “I want the more complicated. I want to know why. I want to know in high school what they teach. Math is the same everywhere. But the problem with writing, the way I think is Eastern thinking. Western thinking is different.”
In addition to ESL, Myers is working on her GED.
Between school and work, Myers encounters cultural differences on a daily basis. The way clothes are worn, the way people drive. Even parties are different.
“In Vietnam, if someone has a party, it’s not very big because they cook all the food,” she said. “Here, you bring something to a party, so there are big parties.”
One of the most significant distinctions between Vietnam and the United States, said Myers, is what she calls “positive thinking.”
“The first time I failed (my driver’s license test) because I don’t know about the emergency brake. Kris (Drach, ESL instructor) comforted me and encouraged me. ‘Do you have a goal? Do you have a plan? Without driving, you can’t go anywhere.’ She always finds a way to encourage me,” said Myers. “My mom, she would say, ‘Why you fail?’ I love my mom and not bashing Vietnam, but there is a lot of negative thinking. I appreciate liberty and positive thinking here.”
Interacting with Drach and fellow international students gave Myers the confidence to look for a job. She started part time and now works full time at the Columbia store at Tanger Outlets.
“She’s a wonderful employee. Customers and associates think she does a really good job,” said Columbia manager Lou Griffith. “We ask our associates to do a little selling. She is one, if not the best, at doing that.”
Griffith admires Myers’ willingness to ask for help.
“I have not seen any shyness,” he said. “She doesn’t hesitate to clarify something.”
Asserting herself is a big change for Myers, who used to be afraid to ask questions.
“Where I work, people know I am second language. At first, I would tell people, ‘If I ask too much, just stop me. You don’t have to explain.’ I don’t want them to get ... annoyed. Now I’m not afraid to show people what I don’t understand. I’m happy to show people I’m willing to learn what I don’t know,” said Myers. “I appreciate they take time out and are patient.”
Myers carries a pen and paper in her pocket to write down words or slang she doesn’t understand.
“I remember this first job I had. I (had to) ask people to sign up for (a) credit card. The first time (a customer) accepted, I show my boss how happy I am. For others, it’s easy. For me, it’s an achievement because I can say a sentence to people to understand, and I can persuade people to sign up and third, I can achieve my goal. That showed me to believe English is the number one step in my goal.”
Myers’ next objective is to become a manager.
“I always have a goal. I cannot tell you my goal is to open a bridal store, that’s too far away. (I have) many goals to achieve before then,” she said. “My life is so much better now. I feel 5 or 6, discovering new life. When people come here and share what they achieve, it seems so easy. They cannot imagine how much I have to learn everyday. ... Maybe I had to learn to compromise. Keep my culture and respect American culture so I can be happy.”