Quang Nguyen had a rather inauspicious arrival in the United States, especially for a young man who, 10 years later, is on track to fulfill his goal to become a millionaire.

In August 2007, Nguyen traveled alone and with limited English skills from Vietnam to Portland. Just 18 at the time, he planned to live with his uncle and attend Southern Maine Community College on a student visa.

He expected his uncle to pick him up soon after his flight arrived. He waited patiently in the baggage claim area – for four hours. He called his uncle but still couldn’t find him.

Eventually, Nguyen made his way to the lost-and-found office. A woman there spoke to his uncle, then explained the mixup to Nguyen. He had purchased a ticket to Portland, Oregon, not Portland, Maine, and he was still 3,000 miles from his new home.

“I was shocked,” Nguyen recalls. “I was very independent, so I wasn’t afraid. But I was by myself and I couldn’t communicate well in English, so it wasn’t an easy start.”

The airline helped Nguyen get to Maine, putting him in open seats on several flights that hopscotched across the country.

A decade later, Nguyen, who is now 28, has distinguished himself as a business leader in Greater Portland and a standout in the local immigrant community. He’s also recognized among Vietnamese Buddhists across New England for his role in establishing a temple in South Portland last year and his efforts to preserve Vietnamese culture.

A self-described entrepreneur, Nguyen (pronounced “win”) already owns several businesses and employs 15 people. He’s working with South Portland officials and Avesta Housing to develop much-needed affordable housing in that city’s diverse and growing West End neighborhood. Next, he plans to start an aquaculture operation on Casco Bay to be run by his parents, who joined him in Maine this month.

Last November, Nguyen became a naturalized citizen in a ceremony with 50 to 60 other people at the Portland Public Library. He’s one of 700 to 1,100 Maine residents who are naturalized each year, according to data provided by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.


Naturalizations in Maine from 2008 to 2015, by year and by citizens’ nation of birth:

SOURCE: U.S. Department of Homeland Security
INTERACTIVE: Christian MilNeil | @c_milneil

He swore the oath of allegiance for more than patriotic reasons.

“It was an interesting moment,” Nguyen says. “I am proud to be a Vietnamese American. But it was more about being recognized and rewarded for my hard work.”

While Nguyen’s experience here has been positive overall, it hasn’t been exactly easy. Like many immigrants, he has encountered language barriers, racial prejudice and financial hurdles. But he set his mind to overcome those challenges, and he did.

Naturalizations in Maine from 2008 to 2015, by nation of birth:

Note: Federal naturalized citizen reports omit statistics for nations with fewer than 10 naturalized citizens in any given year. As a result, the map below omits smaller nations that have contributed new citizens to Maine and likely under-estimates figures for the nations that are listed.

SOURCE: U.S. Department of Homeland Security
INTERACTIVE: Christian MilNeil | @c_milneil

When Nguyen turned 25, he made a promise to himself that he would be a millionaire within five years. He says it’s not about accumulating wealth. His aspirations are rooted in his Buddhist faith, which pervades his personal and professional life.

“It’s all about ambitions and goals that I want to achieve,” Nguyen said. “The more I do, the more I realize it’s not really about the money. It’s about what I can do to help other people advance themselves.”

BUILDING ON FAMILY LEGACY

Nguyen says he always knew he would grow up to be a businessman. He comes from a poor family of entrepreneurs who have for decades scraped a living from the hard-bitten streets of Cam Ranh, a bayside city of 121,000 in south-central Vietnam that was the site of a U.S. military base during the Vietnam War.

Nguyen’s parents operated a shoe store until thieves broke in one night and wrecked the place. His parents were ruined financially, he says, but they didn’t give up. They started fish farming in 1990, working 18-hour days in the hot and humid climate. Over time, they expanded from one to three ponds, raising sea bass, tiger shrimp and escargot.

The oldest of four boys, Nguyen helped his parents with the fish farming business and did odd jobs between harvests. He also sold flowers and food on the street, including desserts made by his mom. And he learned a lot.

“Fish farming is a tough business to get into,” Nguyen says. “A lot of factors influence the outcome of each harvest: weather, water quality, market price. The buyers have a monopoly and there are so many ways they can control the price.”

A decent student in high school – he did well in math and learned to read and write English – Nguyen decided to continue his education in the United States. He planned to live with his uncle, Anthony Le, who came to California in 1992 and moved to Maine 14 years later, working in restaurants and nail salons.

Though Nguyen had family here, his decision to leave Vietnam was a real leap of faith.

“I didn’t know much about America except from American movies and from people saying it was a great land of opportunity,” he says. “In Vietnam, there’s not a lot of opportunity to strive and become successful. You have to be a lot smarter than me and have connections to get to the next level. Here, you can reach out and make those connections and people are willing to talk to you and help you learn.”

Nguyen arrived in the summer of 2007 with an F-1 student visa. He lived with his uncle’s family in Portland, went to SMCC full time, and worked 50 to 60 hours a week cooking at a Thai restaurant in Portland.

Anthony Le recalls his nephew’s initial months in Maine.

“I helped him get here and after that he did everything himself,” Le says. “In the beginning, he didn’t have a car and didn’t know how to take the bus, so he biked all the way from Portland to SMCC every day.”

Le isn’t surprised by his nephew’s success.

“His mind is very strong,” Le says. “When he focuses on something, he’s not thinking about anything else. And when he starts something, he completes it, step by step.”

When Nguyen finally learned to navigate public transportation, he was up at 6 a.m. every day to take the Metro bus to school and didn’t get home until after 10 p.m. He did well in most classes, but he struggled at first to speak English as a second language.

“I couldn’t really communicate with anyone,” Nguyen says. “I got a C in the first semester of my ESL class and it’s the only C that I got in college.”

That’s when Nguyen recognized the value of taking a risk.

“I couldn’t keep struggling,” he says. “I had to open up to people and communicate. I think that’s important. You have to be willing to speak up and risk being wrong, because you have to be willing to be wrong before you can become better. And that’s not just about learning to speak a new language. That’s about everything in life.”

STARTING BUSINESSES, CREATING JOBS

Nguyen graduated from SMCC with an associate’s degree in business in 2010, then got a job working as an insurance agent for a Scarborough firm.

A few years later, he set a goal to become a millionaire by the time he was 30. To get there, he decided to buy or start one business or money-making venture each year, aiming to amass assets totaling $1 million.


Watch Quang Nguyen’s TEDx Talk at Cape Elizabeth High School

In 2014, with money he saved and borrowed from family members, he bought Star Nails in Windham, which is managed by a cousin. That venture went so well, this year he opened Cape Nails, Hair & Spa in Cape Elizabeth, which is managed by his aunt.

In 2015, he started his own insurance and investment firm, Win Financial Strategies, which has a client base that’s about half immigrants. The same year he bought a three-unit apartment building in Portland, where he lives and keeps a home office. He rents the other two units on Airbnb.com in the summer months and leases them to travel nurses the rest of the year.

In 2016, Nguyen bought a vacant variety store in South Portland’s ethnically diverse West End neighborhood, near the Red Bank Village townhouses and several other housing complexes. He named it Le Variety, after his beloved maternal grandfather, who died in 2015.

His Uncle Anthony runs the store, which has quickly gained a reputation throughout Greater Portland for serving delicious Vietnamese banh mi sandwiches and other ethnic fast foods.

“He always wanted to open a restaurant but never had the resources,” Nguyen says of his uncle. “He’s the one who brought me over here and helped me in the beginning, and he’s the reason my mom let me come here in the first place.”

The store on Westbrook Street is a throwback to another time, before corporate chain convenience stores. Nguyen extends credit to regular customers when they’re a little short. Many of them are immigrants struggling to get by from paycheck to paycheck.

“We let them buy food and pay us later,” Nguyen said. “It’s a good feeling to bring back the old-school neighborhood store, where people hang out and it’s not just a place where people stop in and go.”

Nguyen’s generosity and business acumen are paying off. The store did $350,000 in sales from February through December 2016, and it’s on track to do $800,000 in sales in 2017, he says. Eventually, he hopes the store will find a new home on the first floor of a four-story apartment complex that he wants to develop on the site with Avesta Housing, which built and manages two other properties in the neighborhood.

In June, Nguyen was approved for an $86,000 mortgage at 5 percent interest from South Portland’s Housing Revolving Loan Fund. Nguyen used the money to buy a small lot next to his store and he’s negotiating details of a mixed-use building proposal with Tyler Norod, an Avesta project manager.

“Le Variety has quickly become a real staple of the community and it has the chance to become something even more special,” Norod says. “It’s a unique and interesting opportunity for Avesta to improve on what’s already there.”

Next year, Nguyen plans to start an aquaculture business out of Portland Harbor that would be operated by his father and mother. Hung Nguyen and Hoa Le received their immigrant visas in August and arrived in Maine on Oct. 7, sponsored and escorted by their son.

Nguyen traveled to Vietnam in late September so he could accompany his parents on their first trip to the United States.

“I want to make sure they have an easier time than I did,” Nguyen quips, recalling his mistaken arrival in Portland, Oregon. “They are excited and a little nervous. They’re taking English classes right now.”

As for becoming a millionaire by the time he’s 30, Nguyen says he’s pretty well on track.

“I have a few years left,” he says. “Where I am right now, I think I’ll be able to make it.”

THE AMERICAN DREAM

Before becoming a citizen, Nguyen says he spent an hour studying 100 possible questions about American history and civics, then easily passed the 10-question oral exam.

“It could be difficult for somebody who doesn’t know English well,” Nguyen says. “But there are a lot of resources to help people. They have adult ed classes to help people study.”

The naturalization ceremony was both solemn and joyful, Nguyen says. A few family members attended the late-morning affair, but no photos were taken. There was no party afterward. He raised his right hand, swore the oath, then went back to work.

“It was a big deal for me, but I didn’t want to make it a big deal for other people,” Nguyen says. “It was a huge personal accomplishment.”

In addition to running his businesses, Nguyen is involved in several community organizations and teaches Vietnamese to children of immigrants. His busy schedule has him on the go morning until night, 80 hours a week. Through it all, his Buddhist faith sustains him.

“It’s a philosophy I follow,” Nguyen says. “I don’t pray to God to help me. It’s about how you conduct yourself and treat others. How to relieve your own suffering and help others to do the same.”

Soon after arriving in Maine, Nguyen learned that the nearest Vietnamese Buddhist temple was in Lawrence, Massachusetts. Whenever he made the three-hour round trip, he would rent a van and bring 20 people with him.

After a while, it became clear to him that the Portland area needed its own Vietnamese Buddhist temple. He reached out to the leaders of the Lawrence temple and won their support in purchasing a former United Methodist church on Elm Street in South Portland. The temple opened in 2015 and is now overseen by two resident monks.

“The Vietnamese community in Portland is so glad to have a place to gather for worship, for weddings, for funerals, for counseling, for education,” says Duc Khanh Thich, a monk who speaks for the Lawrence temple. “Driving so far, it was hard to come here very often, so most people just came a few times each year. Quang found that place and made it happen. He’s a great man who has been very kind to the community.”

Despite all of his hard work and positive contributions, Nguyen says he has experienced some prejudice as an immigrant. It was especially apparent when he first became an insurance agent and he cold-called potential clients. But he didn’t let it break his stride.

“Some people hang up when they hear a strong accent,” Nguyen says. “I see prejudice as one of the challenges you deal with in life. I don’t see it as a barrier to prevent me from doing what I want to do.”

Still, Nguyen believes current anti-immigrant sentiments are misplaced. He feels a responsibility to be productive and provide others with a leg up. He also sees himself as a role model for immigrants and native-born Americans alike.

“There are bad apples in every community. It’s not only immigrants,” Nguyen says. “We come over and work hard. We do jobs that other people won’t do. I want to create jobs and help people fulfill the American dream.”


WHAT IS NATURALIZATION?

The process by which a foreign citizen becomes a citizen of another country.

How do you become a U.S. citizen?

You are automatically a citizen if you or at least one of your parents were born here. Otherwise, you must submit an Application for Naturalization, pay filing fees, submit to a background check and interview, and pass English and American civics tests. You also must swear an Oath of Allegiance – often done at a public naturalization ceremony – promising to give up allegiance to any other nation, support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States, and serve the country as required, including jury duty.

Who is eligible for naturalization?

In general, an applicant must be at least 18 years old; have lived in the United States as a lawful permanent resident (green card holder) for at least five years; have been in continuous residence for at least 30 months, without leaving the United States for more more than six months at a time; be a person of good moral character; be able to speak, read, write and understand English; have knowledge of U.S. history and government; and be willing to take the Oath of Allegiance. More specifically, the criteria are varied and complicated. You could be sponsored by a family member who is a citizen or lawful permanent resident, or married to a citizen for at least three years. You could have worked for the U.S government or served in the U.S. military for at least one year. Or served on a vessel operated by or registered to a U.S. company or individual. Or be a clergy member of a religion with a “valid presence” in the United States.

What might demonstrate a lack of good moral character?

Having a criminal record for serious offenses such as murder, assault, fraud or prostitution. Also, drug convictions, habitual drunkenness, illegal gambling, polygamy, lying to government officials, failing to pay child support, persecuting others because of race, religion or other reasons, and committing terrorist acts.

How tough are the English and civics tests?

During an interview with an immigration officer, an applicant must demonstrate “an understanding of the English language,” including the ability to read, write and speak simple words and phrases used in ordinary communication. Applicants are given a choice to read and write one of three sentences. They also must know and understand “the fundamentals of the history, and of the principles and form of government of the United States.” A study guide provides 100 possible questions. During an oral test, applicants must answer six of 10 questions correctly. Applicants can be exempted from taking the tests if they are over age 50 or have a disability.

How much does it cost to apply for citizenship?

The filing fee for naturalization is $725, including $85 for a biometric or background check, when applicable. Applicants age 75 or older are exempt from the biometric fee. Military applicants pay no filing fees.

How long does it take to be naturalized?

It varies depending on location. People in large immigrant communities wait longer. Once a naturalization application is filed, it can take anywhere from a few months to a few years to get an interview.

How many people are naturalized each year?

In Maine, 700 to 1,100 people were naturalized each year for the last decade. According to the U.S. Census, Maine is home to more than 25,000 naturalized citizens. Nationwide, 752,800 people were naturalized in 2016.

What are some benefits of becoming a U.S. citizen?

Only citizens can vote in federal elections, and most states only allow citizens to vote in state and local elections. Citizens can hold a U.S. passport, a federal job and most elected offices. The exceptions are president and vice president of the United States: only natural-born citizens are eligible for those positions.



VIETNAM

Remarkably, in light of the length and brutality of the Vietnam War, the United States and Vietnam have deep and amiable ties, although it wasn’t until 1995 that relations were normalized. Notably, the governments have worked together to locate and return to the U.S. the bodies of American service members who went missing during the war.

Vietnam has one of the highest population densities in the world and the population is relatively young. The communist government instituted reforms in 1986 that have led to the economic modernization of the Southeast Asian nation. It participates in several free trade agreements, and incomes have been on the rise.

Political expression is still tightly controlled in Vietnam, according to the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency. Vietnam is designated as a country of concern when it comes to religious freedom by the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, however a law to address some religious freedom challenges is set to take effect in 2018.

Cultural reference: Ken Burns’ 10-part documentary series, “The Vietnam War,” has recently been released.