FULLERTON — In one world, she is a hard-working law student headed for a career as a corporate or criminal attorney. In the other, she is a Vietnamese-born entertainer who has gained fame here and abroad.
It's the mix of the two worlds--the American and the Vietnamese--that creates a balance for Jennifer Nguyen, enabling her to excel in the two endeavors she pursues.
"I have the American work ethic, but I don't get stressed out," said the Huntington Beach resident, who is known to her largely Asian fans as Nguyen Cao Ky Duyen. "It's great to have the advantage of both cultures."
As testimony to her drive, Nguyen will graduate from Western State University College of Law today after just 2 1/2 years of study.
Nguyen, 28, is the daughter of Nguyen Cao Ky, former premier and Air Force commander of South Vietnam, whose prominence both before and after the fall of Saigon meant that Nguyen's childhood could never be free of political rumors and controversy.
"One good thing is that I've learned to ignore it and live my own life," said Nguyen, who has consciously tried to escape her father's shadow by charting her own course outside of politics.
Ky and his family fled his homeland before Saigon fell in 1975. They moved to Fountain Valley, where Ky again became a controversial figure among local Vietnamese.
Some distrusted the leaders of their often corrupt homeland government. Others accused Ky of fleeing their country with untold wealth. Others admired his exploits as a pilot in Vietnam.
After a few unsuccessful stabs at business here, Ky moved to Hong Kong. Nguyen, who was 8 when the family arrived in the United States, remained behind with her mother, Ky's second wife.
She touches lightly on talk that her father sympathized with the Communists. "My dad thinks about the people and wanted to do something for them," she said quietly. "He said communism was an idea whose time has passed."
Nguyen had dreams at an early age of working in the modeling business. She opened a Westminster photography studio with a friend when she was about 16.
That led to a few jobs hosting beauty pageants, she said. From there, she was invited to introduce acts at Vietnamese music concerts, which are videotaped and sold in Vietnamese communities here (as well as bootlegged and sold in Vietnam). Her storytelling about traditional Vietnamese folk songs and pop music performances in Vietnamese and English have made her one of the most recognized figures among young Vietnamese Americans.
"One of the reasons I don't go to Vietnamese restaurants is people see me and ask, 'Are you Nguyen Cao Ky Duyen?' I say, 'No, I'm her sister,' " she laughed, twirling fettuccine noodles on a fork at an Italian restaurant in Brea during a recent lunch.
"She's pretty popular," said Trang Nguyen, president of Little Saigon Radio Broadcasting. Those in "the younger generation don't really know her father. People judge her on her own performance. She's pretty and smart and achieves things on her own."
Tall, slim and quick-witted, Nguyen has toured with entertainers visiting Vietnamese enclaves in Europe and Australia, lugging along her law books to study on flights. Her fiance, Ed Cross, another student at Western State, arranged to tape lectures for her to listen to when she returned from tours.
If her musical and cultural success have won her supporters, she said she hopes her coming career in law will return something to the community. Emceeing is for fun, she said. Law will be her life's work.
"There aren't enough (legal) representatives out there for the Vietnamese community," said Nguyen, a 1988 graduate of Cal Poly Pomona. "I've seen how not knowing the language lets things get by people. I'm hoping to build a bridge to help more Vietnamese people succeed here."
With the lifting of the U.S. trade embargo against Vietnam, she said, international business law might be her niche. But Nguyen is not ruling out criminal law, either. Her half-brother is a Santa Ana police officer.
Someday, she said, she hopes to return to visit Vietnam.
"There are a lot of people out there who say the minute you go back, you're helping the Communists," Nguyen said sadly. "But the younger generation, people my age, they want to go back and learn. There are also lots of opportunities there."
Nguyen said she hopes to keep American-born Vietnamese in touch with their native culture through her performances.
Her father, she said, taught her the "big things"--the philosophies of Tao and Confucius. Her mother, Dang Tuyet Mai, is the one she is close to, the one who cooks her a week's worth of Vietnamese food during finals and the one who pushed her toward a career in law. Nguyen keeps a photo of her on her key chain.
"In Vietnam, we lived very well off, with 20 servants," Nguyen recalled. "When we came here, Mom had to wash the dishes. It was unheard of then."
She paused and reflected. "After losing and gaining . . . I'm not afraid any more," Nguyen said.
Yen Do, editor of Nguoi Viet Daily News, observed that Nguyen has gone through many ups and downs as the member of a well-known family in the community. It seems to have made her resilient, he said.
"She is more mature now, and has positive directions," Do said. "She learned what her parents didn't know as well," he added. "She learned how to survive."