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toward EQUALITY : EXPLORING A WORLD OF DIFFERENCE : BACKLASH AGAINST THE 'Model Minority' : She Escaped Terror in Vietnam, But Not Stares in Orange County

February 13, 1989|DIANNE KLEIN | Times Staff Writer

It was to have been one of the happiest days of Kim-Nhung Ha's life, the end of a horrific odyssey that had begun with the Communist takeover of her native Vietnam.

She and her family had tried to escape before by sea, but their journey had ended in a Communist prison. Ha and her husband lost their jobs, their home and almost their hope.

They tried again--two years later when Ha was pregnant with the couple's fifth child. This time their overland escape route led them to Cambodia and finally Thailand.

On Oct. 16, 1980, after enduring the deprivation and squalor of four refugee camps, Ha, her husband, their four young sons and newborn daughter were the only Vietnamese aboard an American jetliner en route from Korea to Alaska, their entry point to the United States.

"An announcement came over the plane's loudspeaker," Ha recalled. "It was the flight attendant telling people that Vietnamese refugees were on board. Then he said, 'So be careful. Lock your luggage and watch your belongings.' "

Ha, a teacher by profession who was already fluent in English when she arrived in the United States, paused at the memory. Her eyes clouded with the start of tears.

"It was like a slap right at my face," she said. "The first day, I thought it was such a happy day. I had escaped with my life. But it was also a day that I felt humiliation."

That feeling of humiliation born of discrimination is one that Kim-Nhung Ha, 38, now a claims-clerical supervisor at State Compensation Insurance Fund in Costa Mesa, said she and her family did not know in Vietnam, but one that has engulfed them repeatedly in the United States.

She has felt it, she said, in the expressions of strangers and the arrogance of people seemingly annoyed by her accent.

"It is my opinion, and maybe it is not a fair one," Ha said. "But people, and not everybody, they think we are Oriental, we cannot speak English, we cannot do a good job."

The warning of another passenger on that American jetliner in 1980, she said, has proved prophetic.

"I remember I felt so humiliated," Ha said of that time, "and I cannot stand up and do something about it. I am too humiliated to do that. Then I talked to a Korean doctor a few seats up, and he said, 'Don't let it bother you. It happens all the time. I live in the United States 20 years, and it happens to me all the time.' "

Although Ha stressed that most of the Americans she has encountered have welcomed her, those that have scorned her, overtly or subtly simply because of her race, have left what she calls "a scar in my heart and in my mind."

There was the time in 1982, she remembered, when she and her husband were driving their new car in Huntington Beach, not far from their home. A white man Ha described as in his 30s crashed his car into the rear of their own after the couple had stopped at a traffic light.

"(My husband and I) both got out to ask what is the problem," Ha said. "But (the other driver) did not get out of the car. He told me, 'Are you Vietnamese? I'll kill you if you are Vietnamese.' And then he drove off."

But Ha said other drivers who witnessed the accident later offered their help, kindness she said that gratified her.

And it has been like that, she added, throughout her family's eight years in Orange County, a harmonious transition into the mainstream of American life marred sporadically, but painfully, with racial discrimination and even hatred.

"You cannot look at the gangs, at the runaway children, the welfare, and say that all Vietnamese do it. With six children, (the youngest born in the United States), I can buy my own home. My husband and I, we work a lot, like slaves. We work overtime a lot. We have to work in order to feel we are worthwhile."

Ha said she has no complaints about her current job, which she has held since August, 1987, and for which she was recognized as Best Secretary of the Year.

But like most everything else in her life, such recognition has not come easily for Ha.

She said she applied for her current job after three years of working in a more prestigious position at the Department of Motor Vehicles because of the discrimination she felt from her supervisor there, a white woman.

Ha recalled one incident where the woman called her and three other Asian women into a separate office and seemed to vent her hatred by hurling humiliating, false accusations at them.

"She said, 'You guys don't wash your hands when you get out of the restroom. Don't blow your nose in the sink. Your hair, you Orientals, it smells awful,' " Ha said. "People cried. We were humiliated, angry. . . .

"I wanted to walk out of the job many times. But I work. I wanted to show that I was the best. And then I left."'

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