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Out & About: Safely in America, Chi Dinh spreads love through a social network

Michael Barnes
Chi Dinh, head of the Austin Intercultural Network

She pauses. Takes a sip of water. Puts down the glass. Tries again to talk. Yet words end at her lips.

Recalling her escape from Vietnam at age 7 with her mother and brother, Chi Dinh wavers on the edge.

“I was scared,” she says finally. “My brother and I were starving and dehydrated.”

At one point, the 40 Vietnamese refugees crammed into a tiny fishing boat on the high seas ran out of food and water. Just when all hope seemed to evaporate, a big fishing boat from Hong Kong came into view.

“They threw a bunch of food to us,” Dinh, 37, says. “That saved our lives.”

Her brother is now a real estate broker, her parents retired entrepreneurs, all living in Texas.

Dinh also worked as a real estate agent but sold her company in June. Now she focuses on her nonprofit, the Austin Intercultural Network, which started out as a group to connect Asian-Americans.

“People from every culture started showing up,” Dinh says. “I realized that something was missing, something that would embrace every culture. That’s where I feel most comfortable.”

Born in Da Nang on the central coast of Vietnam, Dinh and her family were targeted after the departure of the Americans and the catastrophic fall of Saigon in 1975. Her father had served in the South Vietnamese Navy; her mother was a nurse. Both were imprisoned by the communists.

Knowing the seas, her father escaped first.

“My mother didn’t know if she would ever see him again,” Dinh remembers. “They were separated for five years. Mom was always trying to escape. She was harassed.”

Dinh, who spoke only Vietnamese, and her brother were at the mercy of a rapidly shifting society.

“I felt like I didn’t belong,” she says with swelling emotion. “I floated from one family to another.”

When she, her mother and brother reached Hong Hong safely, they spent a year in a refugee camp before joining her father in Houston, a relocation hub for many Vietnamese during the 1980s. They lived in a run-down district.

“But we were together,” Dinh says. “My mom was unstoppable. Relentless. She’s an extraordinary woman.”

In Houston — and later in Garland outside Dallas — the Dinhs lived in neighborhoods that blended Hispanics, Asians, blacks and whites. That experience informed their daughter’s later search for a group like the Intercultural Network.

Resilient but reflective, Dinh moved to Austin in 1997 to attend the University of Texas. She studied business and worked her way through school.

“I was always independent,” she says. “I didn’t really like school. I just wanted to work. So I dropped out. I didn’t tell my parents. They didn’t find out until a year ago.”

Her business, Avignon Realty, helped students land housing before it expanded into sales and commercial real estate. She later started a mortgage company, which she closed down two years ago.

That’s when Dinh got serious about finding a larger purpose in life. She enrolled in Landmark Education, a personal development group.

“I discovered where I had been in my life’s journey,” she says. “It was just survival. My whole life was avoiding looking bad.”

Nowadays, she drops words like “honor,” “integrity,” “respect,” “authenticity” and “generosity” into conversations.

The Intercultural Networks that she captains offers classes in intercultural sensitivity, promotes arts from other cultures and teams with other Austin groups to plan festivals.

Later this month, they hope to educate Austinites on Japanese culture through a three-course meal.

Vietnam? She’s been back twice. She spent time with family in southern and central Vietnam, which despite moving to a market economy is ruled by the authoritarian Communist Party.

“The whole time I’m there I’m upset because there’s no freedom,” she says. “Things make me angry. I know the type of life I have in the U.S. The communists can take away anything you have. My family owns land. The communists just took it and gave them a little money. If you protest, they just put you in jail. They use force to control and dominate. There’s no rule of law or due process.”

In Austin, there’s one class she plans to push hard through the Network: Honoring your immigrant parents.

“My parents are in a different world,” says the single woman who lives in the Hancock neighborhood. The question she asks for any endeavor like this one: “How do I create love and connect people?”