Giang Dao, the director of lithography at International Sematech, hails from Vietnam. His father had inherited land, practiced Chinese medicine and was the leader of the orchestra in his village near Hanoi. Then in the mid-1960s, as the power of the Communists grew, the family fled south to Saigon.
In 1967, when Dao was a year out of high school, his father arranged to send him to Japan. Dao attended a Japanese-language school in Shinjuku, in the heart of Tokyo, and met the woman who would become his wife. After a year of Japanese studies, he gained admission to the Tokyo Institute of Technology, one of Japan's best engineering schools.
"It was tough," Dao said, when asked about the transition to college-level Japanese.
Bolstered by scholarships, Dao went on to earn bachelor's and master's degrees-and developed a love for sushi. After the fall of Saigon in 1975, Dao moved to Berkeley for doctoral work, but when his wife became pregnant, he took a job at Intel. "I wish I had my PhD-but we got a son instead," he quipped, smiling.
When I lived in Japan 25 years ago, I often edited stories at the Associated Press Tokyo bureau about Vietnamese boat people who had been rescued and then held in refugee centers-or who had perished in the South China Sea. In talking to Dao, I was reminded how trivial my challenges, like coping with rising college costs, really are.
"Tens of thousands went to the bottom, trying to get to America," Dao recalled, his voice cracking.
Dao has changed during his four years as a manager at Sematech, with a much-improved ability to communicate complex ideas. "Intel sent me here for a reason-so that I could broaden myself," said Dao, who is likely to return to the company late this year.
I asked Dao whether his position at Intel-a company that favors extreme-ultraviolet lithography-had influenced his decisions at Sematech. He bristled. "When I came to Sematech, I made a commitment to be objective."
In a semiconductor industry that attracts many engineers who are able to climb steep cultural barriers, Dao is in some ways typical. Yet his success should be a source of pride for all Americans-and for his Japanese mentors as well-in these troubled times.
David Lammers covers system-on-chip process equipment. Contact him at email@example.com.