SAN DIEGO — Every day as a child, Hanh Tran remembers hearing the unearthly screams and groans of tortured prisoners from a French prisoner of war camp next to her home in Thu Duc, a small Vietnamese village 11 miles from Saigon. When a French officer from the camp visited, she recalls hiding under a table.
"My father whispered to me how we had to be nice to him," she said, "but I screamed at the top of my voice: 'I won't come out and meet a soldier who beats my people.' "
Luckily there were no repercussions from that incident. For Tran, it was another event in a climate of fear that had been hanging over Vietnam through years of French and U.S. intervention.
Her father, who taught at an elementary school, and her mother, a businesswoman in Thu Duc, made sure their 16 children were extremely careful to whom they talked.
"We knew about the secret police and people disappearing," she said. "It was terrifying. You never knew who would be next."
Tran, 42, left her native country to come to the United States in 1967--the height of the Vietnam War--"because it was an utterly hopeless situation there." Today she spends much of her time helping recent Asian refugees as a board member of San Diego's Union of Pan Asian Communities. She also is a financial planner for CIGNA Corp. and has received numerous awards for top service and salesmanship.
Only one of her sisters remains in Vietnam. The rest of the family is scattered throughout Canada and France.
"Vietnam is still always in my thoughts," she said. "Despite being ravaged by war, it is a beautiful country. You have an expression about America being the land of mom and apple pie. Well, our expression for Vietnam is a land of mountains and rivers. When I think of home I think of Vietnam's natural beauty and what was once a peaceful, simple way of life."
Tran married San Diego native Fred Sanders in 1978, but she continues to practice many deeply ingrained cultural traditions of her homeland.
One of the most important is honoring the traditional spirit guardians who protect the country's forests and waterways. Vietnamese have an affinity to these spirits and Tran prepares a special altar to them with candles and incense and makes symbolic offerings of food.
"It is very important for us Vietnamese to recognize and pray to the spiritual forces that protect the natural beauty of our native land," she said. "We draw much inner strength from this bond."
Similarly, just before each New Year, she continues the centuries-old tradition of ancestor worship which she learned from her father.
"This starts with a complete house cleaning, somewhat on the order of spring house cleaning. Except we do it just before the New Year. The intent is to make our home as nice as possible before we invite the spirits of our ancestors to visit. Then we prepare a special table with foods that symbolize prosperity and wealth. Fruits such as pineapples, tangerines and red apples are especially appropriate, served with tea.
"This remembering the past plays a crucial role in my culture's continuity," Tran said. "The elderly feel very comfortable because they know that when they die they will be remembered by each subsequent generation."
Variations of this ceremony also occur when important decisions must be made by a family or village. If it's a village matter, the feast usually takes place on a table in front of the local temple where participants call on the spirits of former leaders to guide them in making a decision.
Another way Tran preserves her Vietnamese culture is through cooking. Like many first-generation Asian immigrants, she has never been able to acquire a taste for the processed and imitation foods Americans seem so fond of, especially luncheon meats out of cans and packages.
"We are used to eating food that comes directly from the sea or the fields," she said. "For me, cooking favorite Vietnamese specialties, such as egg and shrimp salad rolls, is sometimes the best way I can feel I am at home again." Along with her husband, who is a willing participant in both cooking and consuming Vietnamese foods, the couple will often spend up to eight hours preparing elaborate ethnic dishes for guests.
"It serves another purpose, too, because I find I can totally relax from the pressures of my work by going into the kitchen and cooking," she said.
Tran vividly recalls her own difficulty in adapting to the United States, and those memories motivate her work with San Diego's Union of Pan Asian Communities, which offers social services and nutrition programs for about 35,000 recent Asian recent immigrants, most who have arrived in San Diego in the past five years.