Fifteen years after the fall of Saigon, which triggered an exodus of more than 1 million refugees, Vietnamese in the United States are still suffering from the legacy of defeat and the pain of exile.
They are a diverse people whose ranks include former generals and former peasants, spies and schoolteachers, physicians and re-education camp prisoners, fishermen and air traffic controllers. They have brought to America the vitality and the scars, the ambitions and the deep divisions of their homeland.
A few have become millionaires. Many more have earned doctorates, forging a stereotype of economic and intellectual overachievement. Yet this image is largely based on those who fled South Vietnam just before or shortly after Saigon surrendered on April 30, 1975: the nation's Westernized, highly educated elite.
In fact, most Vietnamese refugees in the United States today live in poverty.
Most arrived after 1978 with significant language, cultural and educational handicaps. Many remain dependent on welfare, stuck in minimum-wage jobs or consigned to an exploitative underground economy. Last year, refugee unemployment was twice the national average.
The gap is glaring in Orange County, home to Little Saigon, the nation's largest Vietnamese community. Among the 100,000 people who have flocked to the neighborhoods along Bolsa Avenue are such wealthy exiles as former Premier Nguyen Cao Ky--and thousands of refugees on welfare.
Tuong Duy Nguyen, executive director of Vietnamese Community of Orange County Inc., a social service agency, said: "Americans drive by Bolsa Avenue, and it's so thriving, so prosperous, that that's their image of Vietnamese refugees. It's not true. Most refugees are still living under the poverty line."
After 15 years, Vietnamese-Americans of all backgrounds continue to describe themselves as refugees, not immigrants. And many say they are homesick.
"Most of our people have a hidden depression," said Garden Grove businessman Phong Duc Tran. "We were uprooted suddenly from our country and had to come here. The Koreans, the Japanese, they planned for years to come here; they wanted to come here.
Indeed, the collapse of Saigon, though widely predicted, came much more suddenly than most South Vietnamese dreamed. Of the 1975 arrivals, 61% had less than 24 hours to prepare to leave.
Tales of well-connected South Vietnamese scrambling aboard U.S. helicopters in 1975 with suitcases stuffed with gold are probably exaggerated. Though some did take family jewelry or gold, their only portable asset, many more fled with nothing but their clothes.
What the first refugees did bring, however, was education, class and connections. Sociologists quickly discovered that the 130,000 refugees who fled in 1975 tended to be well-to-do (more than 40%, for example, had owned automobiles in Vietnam) and Westernized. Many had studied abroad or had U.S. friends who helped them get settled.
Most important, the 1975 arrivals were far better educated than their countrymen. Forty-eight percent had university degrees, whereas less than 1% of the Vietnamese population as a whole did. And three-quarters spoke at least some English.
Armed with these advantages--and an outpouring of sympathy from the U.S. public, which has not been sustained--the first Vietnamese adjusted relatively quickly. Though many worked painful stints as janitors and dishwashers, most soon landed middle-class jobs. Men and women worked day and night, shared housing and pooled their earnings. By the early 1980s, federal tax returns show, household income of the 1975 arrivals had equaled the U.S. average. Many of their children were valedictorians.
But such refugees account for roughly one-third of the Vietnamese population now in the United States. The others have less education, less upward mobility and less hope--characteristics that prompted one scholar to compare them to the permanent U.S. underclass.
In California, where more than 40% of Southeast Asian refugees have settled, more than half were still dependent on welfare in 1989.
"There are some tremendous successes, and tremendous failures as well," said Walter Barnes, chief of refugee and immigration programs for the California Department of Social Services. "In the middle of that lies a bunch of people who are trying to do their best."
The later arrivals tended to be young, rural people who spoke little English and had few skills of value in the West. For example, a survey of Southeast Asians in San Diego County found that the average 1975 arrival was a high school graduate but that the average 1980 arrival had not completed sixth grade.