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The Art of the Possible: An hour with Tam Ly

Posted by Aviva Imbrey on Apr 17, 2015 11:19:00 AM

An hour with Tam Ly

Born and raised in Greensboro...

As a normal first question to any interview I asked Tam where did you grow up? He said he was born and raised in Greensboro, NC and then the next question I asked brought out a truly amazing story of heroism, courage, and ambition. This story must be shared.

What brought your family to NC?

And we will get to this, but the journey starts in the early 80’s in Vietnam.

Tam’s parents had an arranged marriage which was sparked when his Grandmother (Father’s Mother) spotted his mother in the market.

Vietnam War

Things were rough. The family struggled as they did whatever was necessary to get by. Tam’s Father smuggled goods in the dark of night between towns (deemed illegal by the communist government), as well as painted communist propaganda for money. However, Tam’s Grandmother envisioned another life. She planned and arranged an escape, but did not tell her husband or family until the day they left.

Tam mentions “My Mother left her entire family, she made a choice to follow her husband’s family and said good bye indefinitely.”

“We were boat people”

25 people crammed on a 30ft fishing boat and headed out to sea with the hope of getting past the Vietnamese border. They were not on a ship built for the ocean, they were on a simple fishing boat with one goal-- to survive past the trackable boundary.

Sink or Swim

The passengers were able to make it to open water where they tried to get picked up by other boats, but as obvious refugees they were being passed. During this time Tam’s Mother was sea sick, which was the wrong diagnosis. Later on they found out she was actually pregnant. It is maritime law that if a boat is in distress than the closest vessel must help. With no one stopping to pick them up , there were no other options but to sink the boat. Tam’s family sunk the boat and got picked up by a vessel heading to Indonesia.

Indonesian Refugee Camp

Tam’s family landed in an Indonesian refugee camp where Tam’s Sister was born. About a year into living at the camp, his family was sponsored to come to the United States by a Lutheran Church in North Carolina.

United States: Arrived together, with nothing, no english, and a whole lot of ambition.

The entire family, Uncles, Aunts, Grandparents and Cousins, all lived together in one house. Tam’s Dad got a job at a printing press and between all of the relatives and their various jobs, they pulled their money together and opened the first Vietnamese restaurant in Greensboro.

Ly’s Restaurant and Tam’s early years

Tam was born shortly after the restaurant opened and remembers his childhood being immersed in helping in the family restaurant. Although Tam was born in the US, his first language is Vietnamese. 



How was it growing up in Greensboro and being the first person in your family born in the US? 

Tam: English came pretty easily since I was around it all the time with movies and school, but I did take an ESL class that really helped me catch on. I was about the only Asian kid in any of my classes early on and I started to realize that I couldn’t hide my Asian American identity. I actually felt more uncomfortable around Vietnamese people growing up. That changed later when I got involved in VSA (Vietnamese Student Association) in college.

Do you and your family ever go back to Vietnam?

Tam: I have been back. It took my family over 25 years to go back. My parents worked at the restuarant 7 days a week for 10 years so there was no time. We did go just 3 years ago and we spent time with my Mother’s family for the first time.

Could you tell me about your high school experience?

Tam: For the most part, I fit the “smart” Asian kid stereotype as I am introverted, always had a few friends, and made good grades. My parents instilled in me the value of doing well in school. My mom has a 5th grade education and my dad has a 10th grade education.

“If they had been educated they would be killing it. They are hustlers, you know. I have a ton of respect for them.”

You went to UNC Chapel Hill and majored in psychology?

Tam: Yes, I started as a chem major because I always thought I would be a Doctor, but it was not for me. I switched to psychology and I think it was meant to be as my name, Tam Ly, means psychology in vietnamese. I continued on to get my masters at UNCG in psychology, but while I enjoyed learning I did not love implementing the case studies. 

So you were the first in your family to get your masters and you got it in psychology, how did you end up programming?

Tam: I wish you could be called a Master for getting your masters. Master Ly has a good ring to it!

I had to shift gears after I got my masters and decided to take a year and a half off to clear my head. I went back the greensboro and helped my parents out at the restaurant while tapping into an old hobby.

I had always done a little coding, started on my TI83+ calculator. I am artistic and creative - so I went that route into programming with HTML, CSS and JavaScript. I also took classes for a year to refine my skills before moving into a full time job in programming. At my previous company, I was first doing web maintenance, then moved more into UX analysis, UI development, and by the time I left I did all of their UI dev.

How did you end up at Windsor Circle?

Tam: If I wanted to be comfortable I would have stayed at my old job. Here, I am challenged pretty much everyday and work with people who really know their stuff. I like the culture, everyone says culture is important but you can't really define it. When i came here, talked to people and interviewed, it was different. I take a lot of pride in my work so I like being here where people do too.

What’s Next?

Tam: Getting married! My fiancee is planning the wedding and I just do what she tells me to and stay out of her way.

Those Who Say It Can’t Be Done Should Not Get in the Way of Those Doing It.

The biggest accomplishments in human history are the ones that seemed impossible. But someone did them.


Tam mentioned numerous times throughout our discussion how is Grandmother was the driving force in his family. She is the matriarch and a true hero. Tam's family story is a testament to taking risks and championing change.












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