"The latecomers, they say, 'Those who came in '75, they stick their nose in the air,' " said Christine Nguyet Pham, who arrived in 1989 and is a caseworker for Orange County Refugee Community Resources Opportunity Project Inc. The 1975 arrivals, however, note that they worked hard to create the cultural comforts that the later arrivals enjoy: Vietnamese restaurants and markets offering the tastes of home, cafes to relax in, books and newspapers, even Vietnamese-speaking job counselors. And, they note, there were no well-placed relatives to help them get on their feet.
But if the 1975 arrivals seem elitist, some of the latecomers, who tend to have less experience of the West, often have wildly unrealistic attitudes about life in America, according to several recent arrivals from Vietnam.
Many denizens of Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon, read letters from rich relatives and dream of joining them in a life of ease, said Tien Tat Chu, a former re-education camp inmate who arrived in Huntington Beach in January.
"In Saigon, they say that even the lamppost wants to go to America," he said.
After years of war and deprivation, Pham said, some recent arrivals want only a chance to enjoy life. She remembered friends promising that when they got to America, they would take ballroom dancing lessons.
"In Vietnam, they have the wrong vision of the lifestyle here," Pham said in Vietnamese. "They only see what is sent back--money, gifts, technology, abundance. Those in Vietnam only see the enjoyment and not the work."
Indeed, she said, Vietnamese accustomed to a slower, more social way of life are unprepared for the hustle and bustle of U.S. capitalism, which she called a "work, work, work machine."
"When they get over here, their relatives work all day and don't have time to explain to them what it takes to survive here," Pham added. "And the life here is different--as if you've been plopped down from the sky."
A growing number of scholars argue that the myth of the miraculous Southeast Asian refugee has made life more difficult for the struggling majority. Steven J. Gold, assistant professor of sociology at Whittier College, the scholar who compared the plight of the newly arrived refugees to that of the U.S. underclass, said that stereotypes about Asian immigrants as "model minorities" imply that those who are not instant successes have only themselves to blame--even though Vietnamese refugees tend to be highly motivated.
"It tends to downplay the real problems facing the majority of members of the group," Gold said.
Kristy Tran, a 19-year-old Golden West College student who arrived in 1979, is one of those struggling. When she was 5, her father was arrested by Communist soldiers. He never returned. At 10, her mother sent her off by boat with two cousins. Now she studies, works and lives in a rented room so she can save money to send back to Vietnam.
"Sometimes I think I'm weak, that I cannot handle the pressure, that I just want to forget the people in Vietnam and my mom," she said. "But I have to support them. Fifty dollars here can support my mom and my brother for a month. I send them about $600 a year."
Most Americans, Tran said, think Vietnamese are rich, and some are jealous.
"Sometimes I go to the gas station, and American guy comes up to me and ask me for a dollar because he thinks I have money," she said. "Americans only base (their attitudes) on the action of one part of the community and judge all of them."
To some Americans, Vietnamese refugees are living symbols of a humiliating military defeat. Some Orange County combat veterans interviewed recently, for instance, said they resent the presence and affluence of the refugees and are not ashamed to say so.
Vietnamese-Americans are well aware of such sentiments and often feel wounded. In a 1989 Times Orange County Poll of 400 adults, 62% said there is "a lot" or "some" prejudice against Vietnamese people.
A significant minority of Vietnamese said they have never suffered any form of discrimination in America. But those who do encounter it never forget.
UC Irvine student Phong Cao Ta got the cold shoulder on arrival in his first U.S. home--in Alaska. His father, once an education official in South Vietnam, escaped from a re-education camp in 1980 and fled with his son by boat. A U.S. official offered to let them out of refugee camp sooner if they agreed to settle in an area that had few refugees.
"OK, we go (to) Alaska!" Ta remembered his excited father saying. When they arrived, though, the weather was an assault--and people stared at them.
"You are walking down the street and people are yelling names at you," he said. "You turn around and they laugh."
The Tas lasted two weeks in Alaska before fleeing south.
Rich or poor, refugees are unanimous in noting that America's welcome has grown cooler of late. Some say their host country has yanked the red carpet out from under the feet of the very refugees who have suffered the most.