“Vietnam to Ventura to VCBA:A Journey of Fortune and Chance”

I was four, and my sister nine, when our family fledVietnamin April, 1975, during the final chaotic days before the fall ofSaigon. Leaving with only 30 minutes’ notice, we could take only the clothes on our backs and a few family photos. We were among the lucky, since we were able to escape fromSaigonon one of the airlift flights, rather than by boat, as so many others had been forced to do.  Our good fortune sprang from a fortuitous encounter with an American named George Turner, a Graham Greene figure whom we initially suspected of working for the CIA.  At the overwhelming Tân Son Nhât airport, which was full of desperate Vietnamese trying to find a way out, this original “quiet American” unconditionally helped secure the necessary papers for our family to board the military cargo plane. It was a wrenching decision for my parents to make, since getting on that plane meant leaving behind their country, their extended family and their friends, and heading who-knew-where, but my parents, hoping for a brighter future for my sister and me, gathered up their courage and took the plunge.

On our flight out of Vietnamwe made a few stops at U.S.military installations in the Philippines– Subic Bay Naval Base and Clark Air Base – before finally landing on Guamfor processing. From there, we were sent to a refugee camp at Fort Chaffee, Arkansas. we only had to stay two months at Fort Chaffee because we already had sponsors, Dale and Flori Reilley, lined up to relocate us to Ventura, California. (Years later, when I discovered that the city’s original name was “Buenaventura,” and that in Spanish this means “good fortune,” I was struck by the fittingness of this having been the final destination of our journey of good luck.)

My father, Dat, had previously met Mr. Reilley about six years before at a summer teaching exchange program for science teachers at theUniversityofMaryland, and the two of them had remained in close contact since then. It was another of those fortuitous encounters, and we owe a lot to the unstinting generosity of the Reilleys, who, despite already having a full house with seven children of their own, took us in those first three months and helped us establish our new life inVentura. My sister and I did not know a word of English then. The only thing I could say was “Ông Bà My” (Mr. and Mrs.America) when referring to Mr. and Mrs. Reilley! I also remember sleeping in the Reilleys’ camper in their driveway until we eventually moved into our first apartment.  Although we are Buddhist, we received extraordinary friendship and kindness from members of theBibleFellowshipChurchinVentura, who donated clothing, household goods and decorations for our first Christmas inAmerica, and most of all, kept us comfortable in this new land. Eventually, my mother, Thu, who had been a teacher inVietnam, was able to secure a teaching job at Ventura Adult Education. My father had to quit his teaching career to become a lab technician for the City ofVenturawater Treatment Plant.

Growing up as a first-generation Vietnamese-American was not easy for me, and involved trying to adjust to the new culture while maintaining my cultural heritage and roots. My parents always told me that I could speak English outside the house, but when I was at home I had to converse in Vietnamese. Maintaining my native language also became a necessity because we were later reunited with my grandparents (who spoke only Vietnamese), and they moved in with us. At the time, there were about ten other Vietnamese families who also settled inVentura, and we all got to know each other well. The families would get together each year to celebrate Tet  (the Vietnamese lunar New year) by enjoying delicious traditional Vietnamese food, singing, dancing and performing skits.

My parents always emphasized the importance of education, non-stop learning, and self-improvement. Following this guiding principle, I advanced throughVentura’s excellent public schools: Mound Elementary,BalboaMiddle SchoolandVenturaHigh School, where in 1989 I was part of the school’s 100th graduating class. The highlight of my high school graduation, though, was not the centennial; it was having Mr. Reilley there and his being the first one to shake my hand and congratulate me. It is a moment I have never forgotten, for in a sense it was Mr. Reilley who had made it possible, and it was very much on my mind when, less than a decade later, I had the sorrowful privilege of delivering the eulogy at Mr. Reilley’s funeral.

My extra-curricular activities during those school years included playing piano competitively for nine years, and participating in the Boy Scouts, where I achieved the highest rank of Eagle Scout. Other than AYSO soccer for a few years, playing tennis recreationally has been the sport I’ve enjoyed the most growing up and in which I have continued to this day.

Like my sister before me, choosing to attend UCLA (go Bruins!) was a no-brainer. however, my decision to take the path of prelaw (political science major) brought some angst to my parents, who probably had some doubts and worries about whether I would be successful as the first attorney in our family.  At UCLA, I fully embraced my cultural identity and felt that I truly fit in. This self-realization was due to my active involvement in two campus groups – Vietnamese Students Association and Vietnamese refugee Aid Committee.  

After graduating fromLoyolaLawSchooland passing the Bar in 1996, I landed my first job at Girardi & Keese. It was fascinating to work for and learn from a master of trial like Tom Girardi.  

Six months later, I was offered a staff attorney position for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit inSan Francisco.  Accepting this exciting opportunity and moving to the Bay Area gave me the chance to meet my wife, Pauline, who at the time was finishing pharmacy school at UCSF. I am fortunate to have found a partner in life who is as passionate as I am about traveling and experiencing cultures throughout the world.

In 1998, I moved back toVenturaCountyand re-entered private practice by joining Nordman, Cormany, Hair & Compton. My experience there was invaluable, working with an esteemed group of attorneys in such a diverse practice.  When Pauline and I moved toThousand Oaksin 2002 and bought our first home, I  received a tip from Steve Henderson (VCBA Executive Director, unofficial “yenta”/headhunter, and quiet American in his own right) about a firm named Sullivan, Sottile & Taketa inWestlakeVillage. Steve’s  professional matchmaking instincts were, as usual, dead-on. I joined the firm, which later became Sullivan Taketa LLP, and I was subsequently elevated to partnership.  It has truly been a pleasure to work with my partners, Mark Sullivan, Donn Taketa and Joel Villaseñor, because they foster the most collaborative and congenial team environment.

My VCBA involvement started in 2002, when Scott Samsky and Meghan Clark cheerfully “coerced” me into serving as president of the Barristers section.  I later became more involved at the State Bar level, and then founded the Ventura County Asian American Bar Association. I am thankful that Pauline is so patient, understanding and supportive of me in all of these endeavors. The most rewarding aspect of VCBA mmbership is the group of inspiring mentors, role models and friends who have influenced my professional and personal development. Many of these people, such as Tina Rasnow, Carmen Ramírez, Bill Hair, Jon Light, Matt Guasco, and David Shain, are themselves past VCBA presidents, which makes me prouder still to be included in their company. It is my privilege, and part of my continued good fortune, to have been chosen for this year to head this great organization, and I will give my all to be worthy of it.

About Charmaine H. Buehner

Charmaine H. Buehner is an Assistant County Counsel and is the 2015-2016 president of the Ventura County Bar Association.