Vietnamese in America

June 19, 2000 at 12:00 AM EDT
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Another of our reports on the legacy of the Vietnam War, 25 years after the American withdrawal. Spencer Michels looks at Vietnamese in the U.S.

SPENCER MICHELS: When the Vietnam War ended in 1975, and for years afterwards, tens of thousands of Vietnamese boarded rickety boats to escape from a communist country where, they said, life was hard and anyone with money or status was suspect. Many ended up in the United States, where most started out in low-cost housing. At first, the U.S. Government tried to disperse them across the country. But eventually most settled in just a few areas, including Houston, Texas, the Gulf Coast of Louisiana, Northern Virginia, and Southern and Northern California.

GIANNA TRAN: It was a very low-income neighborhood. There were a lot of Vietnamese refugees and immigrants who live here.

SPENCER MICHELS: This crime-ridden neighborhood in Oakland was home to Gianna Tran and her family, who arrived 22 years ago with $50 to their name.

GIANNA TRAN: That was my room up there.

SPENCER MICHELS: Did you know as a teenager that this wasn’t where you wanted to be?

GIANNA TRAN: Definitely. I had such a strong determination in myself that I don’t want to live this kind of life for the rest of my life. I want my children to be better, and therefore, you know, you have to work hard to get out of this.

SPENCER MICHELS: Tran did work hard to move on, learning English, earning college degrees, marrying, having kids, buying a house, and getting a job. As a social worker, she is managing director of the East Bay Asian Youth Center, where she helps new immigrants adjust to American life. Her success is not unusual for the nearly two million Vietnamese who have come here or were born here in the past 25 years.

WOMAN: You might want to revise the budget on that, then.

SPENCER MICHELS: Claudine Ta is Gianna Tran’s sister. At 11 years old, she was new to America, penniless, speaking no English. Today, at 33, she is director of finance at a, a large Silicon Valley software company. Two years ago, she and her husband moved into a new, spacious house in San Jose, where they are raising their family. Her husband is a senior manager at Replay TV, another Silicon Valley firm. His mother worked at the U.S. Embassy in Saigon, and they escaped the country on one of the last flights out in 1975, leaving behind the father, who disappeared after two years in a harsh detention camp. While these Vietnamese Americans have come a long ways, past struggles are never far from their thoughts. Claudine says her teen years had one purpose only.

CLAUDINE TA: We were here with one goal, which is to go to school, to make sure that you learn how to speak the language. And, you know, you go to learn. You don’t go to go – to go to the prom. You don’t go to all these different activities.

SPENCER MICHELS: A lot of people would say that doesn’t sound like a lot of fun, especially for a teenager.

CLAUDINE TA: That’s true. But I think we were – not growing up not to have any fun. We were growing up with very family oriented where your fun is really with your family.

SPENCER MICHELS: Her husband had a different experience, growing up in the only Vietnamese family in Salinas, California.

KHANH TA: I didn’t feel that way at all. I felt like, you know, here I am, a kid in a new land. It’s fun. There are Big Macs, it’s great. Bigger candies. No, I had a lot of fun when I was a kid.

SPENCER MICHELS: Claudine’s sister Gianna took us to her parents’ small appliance store in Oakland, where her father, now 70, and her mother have struggled to build a new life for their children. They put four of their five kids through college and grad school by repairing and reselling electronic gadgets.

TOCHAU NGUYEN: Just work, work seven days a week, seven days a week. And we don’t enjoy… We don’t do… We don’t go anywhere.

SPENCER MICHELS: Was it worth it? Did it all turn out okay?


GIANNA TRAN: I think the happiest day of their lives was when they saw us graduate from college. My mom all dressed up in the traditional clothes, show up at the ceremony, and I saw a lot of pride in their eyes, and I thought that was something that money couldn’t buy.

SPENCER MICHELS: Like the Trans, many of the Vietnamese have escaped the poverty of their arrival. Since 1983, nationwide, 58% of Vietnamese entered the workforce, slightly higher than for other refugee groups. Since 1980, the median income of Vietnamese Americans has jumped ahead of the national average. The success of Vietnamese families has amazed people like Alette Lundeberg, who manages refugee programs for Santa Clara County, California, home to nearly 100,000 Vietnamese Americans.

ALETTE LUNDEBERG, Refugee Program Manager: The Vietnamese are remarkable in that they came in in large numbers in the early 1980’s and really, really drove themselves to succeed. They sacrificed everything to work, to raise their children, to get their children into education. I’d say it was a remarkable group in that they had, within this first generation, jumped into the success… the successful mainstream America.

SPENCER MICHELS: Not every Vietnamese American has been successful, of course. On this street in Oakland, Vietnamese youth often hang out, and police report that some have been involved in gang shootings and illegal activity, a pattern repeated elsewhere in the country. In Oakland, social worker Gianna Tran has some clients who have experienced both success and trouble. In this household of recent immigrants, the father works delivering newspapers. The two younger children are doing well in school, and are active in sports. But one older brother is in custody, threatened with deportation for illegal activities. (Speaking Vietnamese)

THANH NGUYEN, New Immigrant (translated): I have taught all my four children in the same way, loved them in the same way, and support them in the same way. However, on the street, the peer groups had a lot of influence on the children, and how they turn out depends on that. So I felt that I have treated all of them equally and loved them equally.

SPENCER MICHELS: You’ve got a brother who has got some troubles. You seem to be doing okay.

JULIE TRUONG: Because I listen to my mom and I do as she tells me to, because I want to grow up as a person known as somebody, and not as nobody.

SPOKESMAN: Number 12, right? Number 12.

SPENCER MICHELS: For those who haven’t made it yet, there are vocational classes like this one in San Jose, started by Vietnamese American engineers wanting to help their countrymen.

SPOKESMAN: You understand?

SPENCER MICHELS: In this area, about one in eight Vietnamese refugees gets some kind of government assistance. That’s a very low percentage for recent immigrants.

SPOKESMAN: When are you going?

CLASS: When are you going?

SPENCER MICHELS: But there are always some who will struggle because of the language barrier, especially those who came to this country late in life. (Speaking Vietnamese)

LAM NGUYEN, New Immigrant (translated): I’m in my 70’s, and of course the younger person have more advantage than me, as an older man who came in here late, and do not have the skills that they have.

SPENCER MICHELS: For most of these people, the legacy of the war is directly related to their daily lives. (Speaking Vietnamese)

NGOI NGUYEN, New Immigrant (translated): The war is not a very good experience for me. My house was burned by the communists, so I moved to the market and lived there and do business. My husband was put in jail after the communists took over for four and a half years.

SPENCER MICHELS: For many of the older Vietnamese refugees, the war and the communist takeover remain a central focus of their lives, and have set a political tone for the community. (Chanting) In March, hundreds of demonstrators led by former South Vietnamese military officers protested an art exhibit in Oakland that featured pictures of Ho Chi Minh, leader of communist North Vietnam who died in 1969. The strong anticommunist sentiment here is supported by Tam Nguyen, publisher of “Saigon U.S.A.,” one of several Vietnamese newspapers in Northern California. Nguyen came to America at 18, worked as a dishwasher, put himself through college, became an engineer, got an MBA and a law degree, and is now a newspaper publisher.

TAM NGUYEN, Publisher, “Saigon, USA”: We all came to America because the historical event 25 years ago, and don’t forget that. As if the Jews got out of Germany don’t forget that — so we are all refugees from the communists. So please don’t forget your… The cause that we been here and the reason we came here in the first place.

SPENCER MICHELS: Many parents, like Gianna Tran’s, say that passing that legacy on to their children, who don’t remember the war, is important.

GIANNA TRAN: I remember that back in February of 1975, my house was burned down to the ground and my parents got injured, and almost died. We lived in our plantation for five months, in the woods; basically had no food or water except for getting things from the trees to eat and survive. And to this day, I don’t have any picture of me as a child. Now, with my own children, one day I want to take them back to Vietnam and see the kind of life I used to live so that they have more understanding of where we come from and still appreciate the culture; that even though we’re here, we’re Vietnamese Americans– we’re not American, we’re not Vietnamese, we’re both.

WOMAN: Get to work.


WOMAN: Ashley, please.

SPENCER MICHELS: Vietnamese continue to arrive in America, but the numbers are very small these days, mostly relatives of those already here.