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A Long Way From Home : Some Vietnamese Immigrants Have Quietly Assimilated; for Others Who Yearn to Return Home, the War Goes On

January 05, 1986|DAVID DeVOSS | Staff writer David DeVoss, was a correspondent in Vietnam and has made seven trips to Ho Chi Minh City since the end of the war

After four years of "re-education," 17 months in a refugee camp, a 16-hour flight across the Pacific and a two-hour slog through immigration at Los Angeles International Airport, Lien Phuoc finally clasps the hands of his two dazed children and leads them cautiously through the pneumatic door into a new life.

Shivering in the winter morning's chill, the 36 - year-old former International Harvester mechanic nervously scans the crowd, looking for his brother Lien Phat, who six years before had fled Vietnam in search of a better life.

"Over here, younger brother," calls Phat, wading through the swirl of 100 other new arrivals. The brothers embrace amid the clamor of a dozen impromptu reunions. "At last, I, too, am free," cries Phuoc.

Bundled into the back seat of their uncle's Buick, the children gaze mutely as office towers more than twice the size of the largest building in Saigon flash past. "Everyone here is in such a rush," observes Phuoc. "Now I understand why you didn't write home more often, older brother."

"I sent more letters than you received," Phat counters, edging onto the snarled freeway. "I bet the VC know more about Woodland Hills than you do."

The brothers smile, knowing that they still have a family. As the car climbs through the Sepulveda Pass, Phat speaks of the home he has grown to love even more deeply. Phuoc describes his hopes for the future. Neither mentions California. For both brothers, the reality of the present and dreams for the future lie 10,000 miles away in a land no longer their own.

During the past decade, the United States has accepted more than 485,000 Vietnamese for resettlement. Of this number, about 299,000 live in California. Most of the 165,000 Vietnamese in Southern California have found some form of employment. But for many, cultural assimilation has been hindered by a preoccupation with the past that translates into a continuing determination to overthrow the Marxist government in Hanoi.

"Once I find a job my goal will be to help those still in Vietnam regain their freedom," explains Lien Phuoc, whose wife and eldest daughter were left behind in the haste of his departure on a tiny fishing boat. "A belief that Communism can be defeated is the only thing that keeps me alive."

The Vietnamese diaspora differs from others of the past. Entire families arrived at Ellis Island from Europe early in this century. Their migration was voluntary and seldom contested. In Cuba, Fidel Castro invited all his enemies to leave after the 1959 overthrow of Fulgencio Batista, and, in the first four years of his revolution, 208,000 Cubans resettled in America.

Except for the ethnic Chinese encouraged by Hanoi to leave in the late 1970s, most Vietnamese have been forced into clandestine escapes in which family members have been separated or killed. The U.N. Orderly Departure Program is hardly an attractive alternative. Those who apply are ostracized, denied employment, see their children expelled from school and, after they leave, are required by the United States to endure six months of orientation in a Philippine refugee camp before being resettled.

Either way, the emotional trauma lingers for years. New beginnings are postponed by a loneliness born of divided families. The desire for revenge is reinforced as each new refugee recounts his personal litany of Communist abuse.

Many Vietnamese assuage their nostalgia with weekly visits to the Caravelle Club in Anaheim. No other place in Southern California better captures the ambiance of a Saigon cabaret. While customers sip 33, a French beer similar to that once produced in Ho Chi Minh City, or bitter cafe filtre , a succession of willowy vocalists glide through the purple haze. Each wears an embroidered ao dai, a tight-bodiced dress worn over flowing silk trousers, and each sings with the reverberating echo unique to Vietnamese music.

Like a river sadly flowing,

Like a person with no heart.

All joy and happiness is gone.

Saigon has lost its name,

And we have lost Saigon.

"Saigon Memories" will never make the U.S. hit parade. The song's poignant refrain punctuates a melancholy chronicle of simple pleasures vanished along with the South Vietnamese culture that created them.

"I try to pretend I'm back in Vietnam, but it's impossible," sighs Thanh Thuy, a former headliner at Saigon's Queen Bee nightclub. "It's easier to change your citizenship than to forget your past."

Thuy's remembrance of the past--at least her recollection of popular songs written between 1954 and the Communist victory in 1975--makes her a star attraction with Vietnamese audiences, who have elevated songs about orphans and wartime romance to the status of oral history. "Everyone I knew before in Saigon is 10 years older and stays at home," she says. "Their children come to hear the songs, learning our story so they may understand why their parents are so depressed and homesick."

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