When Tim and Huyen Garrety married in Vietnam in 2009, they didn't realize they were just beginning their struggle to get the Vietnamese government to allow Huyen's to move to the United States.
Tim and Huyen Gerrety can trace their marriage back to the fact that Tim’s mom, Paula, watched a certain TV show back on a certain day in 1975.
“She saw a show that mentioned Catholic Charities was looking for people willing to sponsor a Vietnamese family to come to the United States,” Tim said earlier this month.
The Gerretys agreed to help Mr. Thanh Tran move to the United States shortly thereafter.
“Thanh Tran lived with us for awhile after the Vietnam-American war,” Tim said, adding, “Over there, they just call it ‘The American War’.”
Although the Tran family now lives in Augusta, Georgia, they keep in touch with the Gerretys, who are now based in Seaforth. Shortly after Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf coast, the Gerretys went to a Tran family wedding in New Orleans.
“Mr. Tran kept saying to me, “Why you not married?’” Tim said.
A couple years later, the Gerretys had a request from Tran – his sister-in-law’s classmate wanted practice learning English. Would Tim be interested in getting on a webcam and speaking English with her?
“Because they wanted me to talk to her, I talked to her. Tran was playing matchmaker,” Tim now realizes.
On Dec. 17, 2007, Tim set up the webcam on his parents’ computer for a conference call to speak with Tran’s sister-in-law’s classmate, Huyen (pronounced like “when” with an H in front).
At the time, Tim was working at Daktronics while going to school at Southwest State University in Marshall, majoring in art education. Huyen was living in Ho Chi Minh (Saigon), selling cell phones while living with a cousin.
Over the next six months, the webcam English-lesson teleconferences went from taking place once a week, to two to three times a week, to daily for up to three hours at a time.
“We got to really know each other at the personal level before ever meeting face to face,” Tim said. “We had already started talking seriously about having a relationship, and Huyen asked, ‘When you come to Vietnam and visit me?’”
Tim thought that was the greatest idea he’d ever heard. One 22 hour plane ride later, Tim arrived in Ho Chi Minh city on June 22, 2008, his 42nd birthday.
“When she met me at the airport, Huyen had 42 white roses for me. I had picked up chocolates for her during my stopover in Japan. Then I found out she doesn’t like chocolate, so they went to her nieces and nephews.”
Tim’s first reaction to finally seeing Huyen in person: “She’s so tiny! She looked bigger on the webcam.
The two hopped aboard a taxi, and Tim suddenly realized at the gut level where he was.
“I was afraid, because I was an American in Vietnam,” he said. “I had no idea how people would react to my being there.”
Nevertheless, he had other things to keep him distracted.
“In the taxi I held Huyen’s hand, and wasn’t nervous any more. It was like I had known her a lot longer than seven months.
“I was trying to learn Vietnamese as fast as possible, but she wanted to practice English, so that’s what we usually spoke,” Tim said.
Huyen had arranged for Tim to stay at a hotel next to her sister’s house. Tim arrived to find a birthday cake waiting for him in his lodging.
“We talked for awhile, and then a couple hours after we saw each other face-to-face for the first time I got down on one knee and proposed,” Tim laughed. “We had already talked about marriage, so I brought the ring with me — but I wanted verification.”
He was prepared for any reaction except the one he got. It seems the groom getting down on one knee to propose isn’t exactly the Vietnamese tradition.
“Why you worship woman?” Huyen said, genuinely startled. As a Catholic, she associated kneeling with worship.
After Tim explained the American tradition, Huyen accepted the proposal, and the next day, Tim met Huyen’s sisters and brother.
And on the third day, he met his future mother and father in law.
They had asked the priest to come and translate for them,” Tim said. “To have a Catholic priest visit your house there is an extreme honor. I had no idea what was going on. I just thought it was going to be as easy as asking if I could marry their daughter.
“The priest said they had some questions, and they were hard questions – they weren’t smiling much. They wanted to know what were my intentions with Huyen.
“At one point the priest noticed I had my rosary in my pocket. I don’t always carry one with me, but I did then because I was scared.”
Tim passed the test with the priest, which gave Huyen’s parents the final approval they needed. An engagement ceremony was set for July 5, 2008.
“Vietnamese engagement celebrations are almost as big as their weddings,” Tim said.
“We were planning on having the wedding at St. Catherine’s Catholic Church in Redwood Falls. I had already talked to Father Mike about having our wedding in Aug. 2009, with a reception in the Seaforth Legion,” Tim said.
“Huyen already had permission from her priest, and I was going through the wedding classes in Redwood Falls by myself.”
Everything was going fine — until the bureaucrats stepped in.
“When Huyen called me, she was crying. The Vietnamese government refused to grant her a visa to come to the United States,” said Tim. “They said it was ‘an illegitimate relationship where she was trying to immigrate illegally.’”
Tim scrambled, and got 15 Redwood area dignitaries to write letters vouching for his character. The letter writers included former teachers, a judge, ministers, and two police chiefs.
The bureaucrats refused to budge.
So, Tim and Huyen went with Plan B: he would marry Huyen in Vietnam instead.
Complicating matters was that Tim had just started a semester at Southwest State to finish his degree.
They settled on Dec. 17, 2009, during Tim’s Christmas break, to get married. Tim’s parents weren’t able to make it to Vietnam for the engagement ceremony, so Huyen’s family stood in for them.
“The priest spoke both English and Vietnamese, and I did one of the readings in English,” Tim said. The vows were said in both languages, while the music was provided by a choir of Vietnamese nuns.
Once the ceremony was over, the couple walked several blocks to Huyen’s parents’ house. They had blocked off the entire street with a tent for the nearly 300 wedding guests.
“The wedding was over at 11 a.m., then we took wedding pictures after and greeted people as they came in,” Tim said.
That’s when Tim slowly began realizing the Vietnamese people have one radically different tradition than Americans: “At Vietnamese weddings, the married couple are supposed to be the hosts of the reception,” Tim said.
“We had to greet and toast the guests at every table. I was under strict orders to have no more than two beers.
“I thought we would be served lunch first, but after the speeches, after the dance, after we said goodbye to the other guests, then we got to eat.”
Again, Tim was concerned about how the Vietnamese people might respond to an American marrying one of their own.
“There were no frowns. The local priest holds a lot of authority, so when he gave his approval, that was the moment of community acceptance.
“One of Huyen’s uncles told me, ‘When I was young man, I say, ‘Yankee, go home!’ Now Yankee come back to marry (niece)!’”
The honeymoon was spent at the scenic Vietnamese city of Da Lat, an old French settlement with antique French architecture.
However, the couple’s reason for visiting there was practical: “We spent the whole honeymoon doing paperwork to get married by the Vietnamese Peoples’ Committee. The Communist government doesn’t recognize Catholic weddings, at least for foreigners.”
After being interviewed and passing the test, Tim and Huyen were married again on Jan. 9, 2010 — this time by a Communist official under a statue of Ho Chi Minh.
Tim didn’t have a visa to stay in Vietnam, so he came back to Seaforth to work on his Masters degree and earn some money doing construction on the side.
Then Huyen called with news: she was pregnant. On Oct. 1, 2010, Tim and Huyen’s first child was born: Fidelma Rosemarie Gerrety, a totally Irish name provided by Tim’s father Mike.
“Huyen asked my father to name Fidelma because we thought he might not have the chance to meet her,” Tim said, adding, “The Vietnamese government required we give her a Vietnamese name, too.”
Tim had no intention of leaving Huyen this time, and lived in Vietnam for the next two years. He made ends meet teaching high school English literature and drama.
“It took two years fighting through the bureaucracy and doing paperwork to get a spousal visa for Huyen,” said Tim.
The couple’s second daughter, Gracie Suzanne Marie Gerrety, was born Dec. 6, 2011.
The couple finally got approval to move to the United States last summer, where they are based in Seaforth.
Today Tim is an academic advisor and counselor at Southwest State in Marshall, while Huyen is a stay-at-home mom working on getting her U.S. citizenship.
What advice to Tim and Huyen have for couples considering marriage?
“Find a husband who can protect you, be a good father, a good husband, who shares everything with you,” Huyen said.
Tim said, “Huyen and I have had to fight for years to be together. I don’t want to ever screw up to threaten what we’ve fought so hard to keep and maintain. If it’s easy, you take it for granted....”