Accessibility links

Cambodian Mechanic Pursues His American Dream - 2002-04-19

English Feature #7-34479 Broadcast January 29, 2001

We continue our series on recent immigrants talking about their jobs and their lives in their adopted country. Today we'll introduce you to Vantha So, a businessman from Cambodia.

Vantha So owns a car repair shop in Annandale, Virginia, on the outskirts of Washington. Now in his 40s, Vantha came to America in 1983 with his parents, three brothers and two sisters. His father was a military officer, so the family had a relatively comfortable life in Cambodia. But he says they left when the political situation there became intolerable.

"The country is not a safe place to live. It was very, very bad, and they were killing, they were starving, and all sort of things. I like to come to America because there are so much opportunities."

The family settled in a middle-class neighborhood of single-family houses and small shopping malls in Annandale, Virgina. Having worked as a mechanic in Cambodia, Vantha landed his first job at a Toyota dealership, then moved on to the service department of a dealership selling luxury Lexus automobiles in Alexandria, Virginia. He says he liked the work because the salary was good, and because it gave him the opportunity to take advanced training in car repairs.

In 1994 Vantha decided it was time to move on again. He and two Cambodian friends opened their own car repair business, which they named "Prime Auto Care."

"It took me a long way [time] to get to the business. First is that, you know, you just work for the dealer, just to get training, good experience and knowledge of cars. I saw a good opportunity to go on my own because I have so many clients."

The new company was off to a good start with a clientele that knew Vantha from his previous work at the car dealerships. Vantha and his partners worked hard and their business grew. They hired five other mechanics. An increasing number of people came to the shop, many of them having heard by word-of-mouth from customers who were satisfied with the job done at "Prime Auto Care."

Despite the success he enjoyed with the company, Vantha once again decided to move on. He quit the partnership of "Prime Auto Care" and, in 1999, opened his own business. He converted the two-car garage of his rambler-type home in Annadale into a repair shop. Vantha says that his shop performs the usual kinds of repair jobs.

"More likely it is slight maintenance work. Basically, tune-ups and once in a while we are running into engine jobs and replace the engine and its internal parts."

Vantha works six days a week, Monday through Saturday. He says that, on average, he works on 15 cars a week, mostly Japanese made -- Toyota, Honda and Nissan. He now has four employees.

Vantha and his wife, Melina, have two girls and one boy, all born in the United States. He says his adjustment to life in America was challenging.

"I have a problem with the language. And traditions here is different than in Cambodia. Days by days I keep learning about their [American] traditions. People in the world have different traditions, we just have to learn how to adapt to them."

Twenty years after coming to America Vantha has a thriving business, a good reputation, a fine family. But he is not content to let things rest there. He has other plans.

"I am trying to shoot for the big goal, which is owning a gas station and I will try to get my business bigger and bigger, and that is how you make money."

Next week on New American Voices - an immigrant from Taiwan takes an American invention, the drive-through fast-food restaurant, and adapts it to his own business, selling Chinese food.