On a ragged dock in the Mississippi Delta, 50-year-old Rick Cao darns the nets of the Miss My Phuong, using both hands and a big toe to sort through a bird's nest of nylon. Soon, he'll shove off again to mine the Gulf of Mexico for shrimp, and he might go weeks without hearing a word of English on his marine radio. The Vietnamese, he explains, "are taking over the gulf."
At an office park outside San Jose, 42-year-old Thinh Nguyen folds himself into his Acura after another 15-hour day. He hasn't had a day off in months, and, well, that's just fine. In 1975, his family arrived in the United States with $75. The Silicon Valley's latest megadeal just made him a millionaire.
On a community college campus in Huntington Beach, 25-year-old Duy Tran lugs a backpack stuffed with math and computer science books. Duy lost his youth in a Kuala Lumpur refugee camp where he was penned in with barbed wire for eight years. Today he's a receptionist by day and a student by night, and when he dreams in English, he wakes up smiling. "All I ever wanted," he says, "was freedom."
The Vietnamese have found a home in America. But it hasn't been easy.
Twenty-five years after the end of the Vietnam War, nearly 2 million Vietnamese Americans have clawed their way past poverty, pirates, disease and ill-informed government programs. Their tale speaks volumes about the durability of culture--and about the ambiguity inherent in America's offer of asylum.
After Saigon fell, federal officials decided to scatter the oncoming wave of Vietnamese refugees across the United States. The goal: to prevent the immigrants from overwhelming one U.S. community, as many believed Cuban exiles had done years earlier in Miami. The government hoped to blunt the impact refugees would have on a region's resources--its culture, its politics and, especially, its welfare system.
"We don't want any ghettoism," one immigration agent told the Senate at the time.
Experts and immigrants, however, say the social experiment was a failure, serving only to delay formation of ethnic enclaves that provide nests, of sorts, for immigrants in America--and a critical first step for assimilation.
Many also argue that scattering refugees produced a host of other unintended consequences--isolation, exploitation and, ironically, extended dependence on welfare.
In the end, the strategy was for naught: A massive secondary migration began almost immediately, sweeping many Vietnamese families out of the American towns that sponsored them and into a handful of coastal and Sunbelt communities--particularly in California--where they found strength in numbers.
In suburban Virginia, thousands of refugees, including many who had worked with the U.S. military during the war, latched on to government and defense work and pieced together a skeletal remnant of their old guard in South Vietnam.
In Houston they have resuscitated a depressed section of midtown. Not far away, in bayous that bear an uncanny resemblance to the deltas of Vietnam, they cast their nets into the Gulf of Mexico.
In San Jose, they helped fuel a high-tech revolution. And in Southern California, they formed Little Saigon--the largest Vietnamese population outside Vietnam itself.
Among the thousands of refugees who made that secondary journey was Thanh-Phong Tran. Settled outside Philadelphia in 1975 by a charity sponsor, Tran and his wife and four children felt isolated. Like so many others, they soon found their way to Southern California.
The retired engineer, now 73 and living in Cypress, was one of the refugees who put Little Saigon, quite literally, on the map. After intense lobbying by the immigrants, it is now marked as an exit off the Garden Grove and San Diego freeways.
"Americans can live by themselves, wherever they want. Not Vietnamese," Tran said. "We are like birds in the sky: We flap together. We would be lost if we did not live together."
Little Saigon: Spiritual Capital
On Sunday mornings, the Asian Garden Mall on Westminster's Bolsa Avenue bustles with self-sufficiency. Merchants hawk steaming bowls of the venerable noodle soup called pho, and durian, the enigmatic fruit that is said to taste like heaven but smell like hell. Inside, behind statues of Buddha and the god of longevity, dignified old men stroke stringy, white goatees and sip ca phe sua da, a Vietnamese coffee.
This is Little Saigon, the commercial and spiritual capital of Southern California's Vietnamese American community, estimated at more than 200,000 strong. It is home to Westminster City Councilman Tony Lam, the nation's first elected Vietnamese American official, and more than 2,200 Vietnamese-owned businesses--video stores, tailor shops, French-style cafes and bakeries offering ornate, four-tier wedding cakes.