The following is a reprint of an article entitled "Vietnamese in U.S. Take Stock of Community," written by Erin Texeira of the Associated Press, originally published on April 24, 2005 and syndicated by several newspapers and media outlets around the country, including Newsday, Wired News, and many others. It is an interesting overview of how the Vietnamese American community has developed and flourished in the 30 years since the end of the Viet Nam War.
Reflecting on the Past, Moving Toward the Future
As bombs pummeled Saigon, Hai and Son Nguyen escaped the city with a few suitcases and piles of worthless Vietnamese cash. They came to America and for years did domestic work as they started life anew. Three decades later, they are successful entrepreneurs, and their American-born daughter, Linda, is a city council candidate. If she wins, she will become the first Vietnamese American ever chosen for a citywide office in this Silicon Valley city.
The Nguyens' is a classic American immigrant tale of hard work and prosperity, one replicated often among the more than 700,000 Vietnamese who became refugees to the United States. But, a generation later, not all have been so successful.
Making up one of the biggest refugee groups in U.S. history, most Vietnamese arrived unprepared, with few resources. Today, even as many still struggle with isolation, high poverty rates and persistent crime, particularly among low-income youth, some in the community are increasingly making their voices heard outside their ethnic enclaves -- and becoming more a part of the nation's fabric.
In coming weeks, those enclaves will host "celebrations of how far we've come and how far we have to go," said Hien Duc Do, a sociologist at San Jose State University. "There are college students and professionals, and we've made headway. But a lot of us are not doing well -- that's what we need to discuss more. "It's time to turn in on ourselves and ask, 'How do we want to construct this community?'"
Prosperity and Poverty
Of the 1.2 million Vietnamese Americans counted in Census 2000, one in three lives in California. They also have a strong presence in neighborhoods from Houston to Alexandria, Va. San Jose, population 900,000, has the biggest concentration of Vietnamese of any American city: Nearly one in 10 residents has roots in the southeast Asian nation that has been in turmoil since the 1950s, when a communist government seized power. (Orange County, in southern California, has the most Vietnamese Americans of any county: 140,000).
Some Vietnamese residents have participated in the prosperity. In Santa Clara County, which includes San Jose, Vietnamese residents own more than 5,000 businesses, according to De Tran, publisher of the weekly Viet Mercury, the only Vietnamese-language newspaper in the nation published by a mainstream news company, the San Jose Mercury News. Those businesses are no longer mainly mom-and-pops: The Viet Mercury's biggest advertisers are Vietnamese real estate developers and dentists, he said.
Some of those successful entrepreneurs live in the new Evergreen Valley neighborhood, with its $1 million-plus tract homes and its sweeping views from the city's green hilltops, said H.G. Nguyen, president of San Jose's Vietnamese Chamber of Commerce. But down the hill and across town, in crowded apartment buildings and crumbling Craftsman style homes near San Jose State's campus, low income families struggle day to day. Citywide, 13 percent of Vietnamese households received public assistance in 2000 compared to 4 percent of all households, census data show.
"We have a small subgroup among Vietnamese refugees who are in the professional class -- I don't want to minimize that -- but mostly Vietnamese tend to be less well educated and less fluent in English," said C.N. Le, a sociologist at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. "Refugee groups, because of their experiences, they have very little time to prepare (before they emigrate)," he added. "You either get out or you stay and risk being killed. ... For a lot of first generation Vietnamese immigrants, they came here with a lot of disadvantages."
These struggles are obvious in Oakland, 40 miles north of San Jose, where more than one-third of the city's Vietnamese live below the poverty line and per capita income is half that of the overall population, census data show. Poverty contributes to other problems, particularly crime, said Gianna Tran, deputy director of the East Bay Asian Youth Center in Oakland.
"Vietnamese youth, nationally, have the highest rate of incarceration among Asians," she said, adding that the myth of Asians being model minorities hits these teenagers particularly hard because few expect them to need help. "There's a lack of awareness of the problems." A big hurdle is that most parents don't speak fluent English, according to Thanh Nhat Pham, a counselor on Tran's staff. "There are language and cultural barriers," said Pham, who estimates that only one in five parents has strong English skills. "The family is obviously detached from what the Asian youth are doing."
Facing the Challenges Ahead
Ironically, experts say, this isolation is rooted in one of the community's biggest strengths: strong, cohesive neighborhoods and business districts offering Vietnamese-language services. For example, along a dozen city blocks on International Boulevard in Oakland's Little Saigon district, there are business signs for beauty salons, accounting services and international phone cards -- all in Vietnamese. It is possible, Tran said, to live, work and socialize in this and similar areas and only speak Vietnamese.
But, among Asian groups in California, Vietnamese have the lowest rates of English language proficiency, according to a recent report by the Asian Pacific American Legal Center, and this means many have minimal communication with public officials. In the San Jose Police Department, for example, just two percent of sworn officers are certified as fluent in Vietnamese, a spokeswoman said.
Political representation also is lacking. There are only a handful of Vietnamese American elected officials nationwide, including Van Tran, a California state assemblyman recently elected to represent Orange County. Though most Vietnamese qualify to become naturalized citizens, experts said, they often opt not to because of language barriers -- and so voting rates are lower than average.Linda Nguyen and Madison Nguyen hope to change that in San Jose. The two women, who are not related, are among eight candidates who want to fill a vacant city council seat in a June 7 election -- and become the first Vietnamese American elected to a citywide public office here. Madison Nguyen, 30, whose family came to America when she was 6 years old, is president of San Jose's Franklin-McKinley school board.
In 2003, she garnered attention after organizing protests when a Vietnamese woman was shot to death in her kitchen by a San Jose police officer who mistook her vegetable peeler for a cleaver. "There are cultural differences and cultural misunderstandings," Nguyen said recently. "The officer also lacked in cultural training." If either candidate is elected, "this will mark the coming of age and political maturity of the community," said Tran of the Viet Mercury.
But one of the biggest hurdles will be simply convincing former refugees that they have a stake in the political process. Even today, decades after they left, some still feel more connection to their distant homeland than to America. Many send money back to relatives and keep close tabs on social and political changes in Vietnam. "People have built homes in Vietnam," Duc Do said. "They call them Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo."
Copyright © 2005 by Erin Texeira and the Associated Press. Reprinted in accordance with Section 107 of the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976.
Suggested reference: Texeira, Erin. 2005. "The Vietnamese American Community" Asian-Nation: The Landscape of Asian America. <http://www.asian-nation.org/vietnamese-community.shtml> ().
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