Destiny is like a pilot inside a cockpit flying, who is unsure of where he’s headed. He can’t fall asleep or not pay attention, because then he’d crash and not get to wherever he was going. But if he stays focused and present, the friendly skies will clear, and he’ll see his landing spot up ahead. He lands, but soon enough, he’s flying again, on to the next destination.
For the Vietnamese pilot Nguyen, nicknamed by colleagues “Captain Zoom,” he’s been inside that cockpit of life for a long time. He broke out of his childhood poverty into a world of wealth and professional success. But what he couldn’t have predicted, however, was how different his true destination was compared to the one he was seeking.
Nguyen grew up in Vietnam amid extreme poverty during the Vietnam War. Seven families packed inside the home he grew up in. Every month, the government would give each person only 19 to 28 pounds of rice, depending on his job, and 100 grams (3.53 ounces) of meat. There was no electricity, and just a small amount of kerosene was rationed out so they could cook over an oil stove.
“We didn’t have enough things to eat, so my Dad had to go down south to work to earn a living,” he said. “It is not about struggling financially. It is the whole society. [Growing up in the West], you could not imagine it. You have no idea.”
Growing up, Nguyen’s mother suffered severe chronic illnesses. Her migraines were so intense, she’d often vomit. Over the course of her life, his mother suffered multiple strokes and heart attacks. Nguyen believes malnutrition and the stresses of these impoverished living conditions contributed to his mother’s poor health.
“She was a sensitive person, and she had a lot of things in her head that just ate at her from inside—that’s why she suffered so much,” he believes. “I grew up with that and always worried about her health. She was always in pain.”
In his youth, Nguyen remembers feeling anxious as he was unable to help his mother. But one day, he read a story that gave him new hope. Society at that time had many restrictions, and books weren’t allowed to be circulated. Also, Vietnamese society as a whole was atheist and had stopped believing in spirituality.
But Nguyen was given a handwritten copy of the famous Chinese legend, The Monkey King. In the novel, Nguyen learned of supernatural powers, miracles, and spiritual faith. He connected deeply to the Monkey King’s good nature and ability to save people in dire circumstances. It was at that point, as a young child, he made a wish: he hoped one day he too could help his mother and save people, just like the Monkey King.
“I was searching for the meaning of life at a very early age,” Nguyen said. “But we didn’t believe in God and we didn’t believe in Buddha—there’s none of this.”
One day when Nguyen was out in the town, he saw some people praying in a pagoda, something he had never seen before. His aunt, who lived with his family, explained to him what they were doing. He connected with the concept, and prayed for the first time.
“First, I asked for my Mom’s health,” he said. “If I ask for something, I knew there’s nothing free in this world, so then I would have to give something back.” He remembered back to how the Monkey King would help those in need. So he thought, “I want to save people. So, now in order to save people, then I need to have power and money.”
So Nguyen made three wishes: his mother’s health, money, and power. On the surface, these latter two could be seen as selfish aims; but his intention, in fact, was to pay back the blessing his mother would receive. As a young child, living in extreme poverty, none of Nguyen’s wishes were for himself. He wanted to help his family and those in pain in society; he thought his only way to do that would be to have money and power.
All three of Nguyen’s childhood prayers would come true, but none of them in a way he expected.
In the 1960s in Vietnam, the government would delegate one of two professions for some families: education or athletics. Nguyen’s parents were mandated to go into athletics, so he was raised in a strict household, practicing athletics twice a day. His favorite type of athletic training was martial arts. He would watch Hong Kong kung fu movies, inspiring him to be like the characters in the films.
“That was my dream,” he said. “I wanted to become a kung fu master.” Nguyen’s ambitions to be a great warrior were supported by the prophecy a fortune teller told him when he was just 4 years old. The fortune teller told Nguyen if his mother taught him well and gave him strong morals, he’d become a great leader or war general. But if she didn’t teach him well, he’d become a leader of criminals or a warlord.
When Nguyen entered university, this fortune would take on new meaning. His mom was so poor she couldn’t afford a newspaper, but one day, she had borrowed one and saw an advertisement for aviation school. She suggested that Nguyen attend the interview, though the chances of him being accepted were almost zero. Everyone in the program were children of powerful people in politics and society. Plus, he knew absolutely nothing about flying.
“During the interview, I had to say, ‘Yes, I love flying,’ just like everybody,” Nguyen said. “But actually I had no idea about it.”
But Nguyen had two qualities that set him apart from others: he could speak English and knew kung-fu. The school needed air marshals, and with Nguyen’s extensive study of martial arts and self-defense, he was accepted. Out of the 16 people in his program, the other 15 students were children of powerful VIPs in society.
“I was the only one who was the son of a nobody,” he said. Just like that, Nguyen’s life changed course. He had never planned, or even wanted, to become a pilot. But had he never rigorously practiced martial arts growing up, he wouldn’t have had this opportunity. Nguyen believes this had been a part of his destiny. “My profession, it was arranged,” he said.
Once Nguyen became an air marshal, he was making more money than he could imagine. When he had first entered university, his parents would make ice in their refrigerator and sell it to a local shop in order to make a tiny bit of income to send to Nguyen. Now, he was earning “a few thousand times more than what my parents earn,” he said.
“I love my mom so dearly. I saw that my parents worked so hard for us. So when I started earning money, I just spent enough for my food. All of my salary, I gave it to my parents,” he said. Over the last couple decades, Nguyen said his mother has wisely invested and bought land with his income that he sends every month. “I’m not interested in spending it.”
As Nguyen continued working as an air marshal, he saw how much respect and authority the pilot commanded.
“They had power inside the aircraft. When they spoke, everybody had to listen to them. They had a very good income, and they were just really manly in my eyes,” he said.
The seed had been planted—he wanted to become a pilot.
On one trip at the start of his career as an air marshal, Nguyen flew from Cambodia back to Saigon, Vietnam. At the airport, there was a group of Korean tourists laughing as one of them gave hand readings. The person giving hand readings reached out to Nguyen and grabbed his hand. He couldn’t speak English, but told the translator.
“One day, you will be a general.”
The two fortune tellers in Nguyen’s life were correct, in a way. Nguyen became a “general” of the skies and became a highly acclaimed pilot, earning the respect and nickname “Captain Zoom” among his peers. He flew over 6 million miles during his 25-year career. But, with over 15,000 flight hours, his job began to take a toll on his body.
“This is a challenging job; it’s stressful and tiring, with a constantly changing environment, such as the temperature and pressure,” Captain Zoom said. He made an analogy of a sealed water bottle that bursts during flight due to extreme shifts in pressure. “The human body is the same as the bottle.”
“When you’re 40, you are not like when you’re 20 or 30,” Nguyen said. “You don’t sleep properly and wake up with joint pain,” he said. After doing martial arts for so many years, Nguyen had developed a unique sensitivity in his joints and the importance of their health, making pain from flying that much more challenging.
The solution to Captain Zoom’s joint pains and fatigue from flying would come at an unexpected time, and would solve an even more important problem—his first childhood wish—his mother’s health.
Nguyen’s mother had visited countless hospitals over her lifetime to try and find a solution to her chronic illness, migraines, strokes, and heart attacks. In her early 60s, her illnesses had become so severe, she was bedridden.
Since hospitals and modern medicine hadn’t helped, she had also been exploring many different alternative healing modalities, such as yoga and qigong—energy practices similar to tai chi. She came across a popular Chinese qigong practice called Falun Gong, which includes five simple, slow moving exercises and teaches three universal characteristics—truthfulness, compassion, and tolerance.
“We are very close; we share everything. I talk to her even before I fly abroad; I will wake up in the morning and call her,” Nguyen said of his relationship with his mom. One day when he spoke with her, “She was fired up about this [practice]… She said this is really good. Really good.”
Nguyen admitted he was skeptical, since his mother had found many “solutions” over the years, but none had been able to improve her health. But he promised to visit her so she could show him the exercises.
The first thing Nguyen noticed when he visited his mother was that she was spry and full of energy, and her pain had disappeared.
“My mom after training in Falun Gong versus other qigong was obviously different,” he said.
She taught Nguyen the five exercises, which he enjoyed. When he was leaving, she handed him the core spiritual teachings of the practice, a book called Zhuan Falun. He started reading it on the way to the airport; it reminded him of reading The Monkey King as a child.
“I was searching for the meaning of life for so long. This book explained it so clearly,” Nguyen said. When he got to the airport, he called his mom. “Hey, Mom, this is it. This is huge. This is not a simple practice. It’s much deeper than that.” At work, during breaks in his shifts, he would continue to read. “The more I read, the more I saw that this was just wonderful.”
Nguyen and his mother have continued to practice Falun Gong, and both have had their health restored. All of his mother’s chronic symptoms disappeared and never returned, and Nguyen feels fresh after flying.
“Twice a day, just like breathing, I do Falun Gong,” he said. “I wake up in the morning and do the exercises, then I read the spiritual teachings. It’s the same, every day.”
Looking back on his life and career, Nguyen is amazed how his three childhood wishes all came true. His mother’s health was restored; he became respected and was given great authority in his profession; and he always had plenty of money to spend, even though he always just sent it home to his parents. But after practicing Falun Gong, Nguyens said he also began to change internally. He no longer desired power and fame, but instead, he just wanted to treat everyone with kindness and compassion.
“Before I thought, you are such and such rank, you do this job. You listen to what I tell you,” Captain Zoom said. “Now, I call people, ‘Sir.’ I treat them now in respect to their soul.”
(Photos courtesy of Nguyen)