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Kids Learn Language of Their Past at Center

Cultural facility instructs first-generation Americans about the heritage of their Vietnamese parents and grandparents. Martial arts work is included.

May 15, 2000|ALEX MURASHKO | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

More than 50 pairs of children's eyes, transfixed on a slide presentation about Vietnam, defy what parents and grandparents fear may set the older generations apart from a new generation of Vietnamese Americans.

At the Nguyen Ba Hoc Cultural Center in Westminster on a recent Saturday morning, a multipurpose room filled with children, mostly Vietnamese, are absorbing knowledge in a Vietnamese language class. And rebellion is not part of the equation.

After one year of opening its doors, the nonprofit center is accomplishing what its five founders set out to do. It continues to promote and preserve Vietnamese culture. The language classes are the main thrust of the center, along with martial arts and after-school tutoring, and have grown from 30 to 122 third- through eighth-grade students.

The center was recently recognized by the Interfaith Council in Garden Grove with an award for its "spirit and action" in the community. Although simple in its character, the 4,200-square-foot building, a former day-care center on Chestnut Street, is serving as a home to groups wanting to bridge the generations.

The recently formed Vietnamese American Oral History Society meets once a month here and is recruiting students and others interested in interviewing seniors for the seniors' perspective on Vietnamese history. The students will be documenting the stories of some people whose voices might not otherwise be recorded.

The Vietnamese American parents who have enrolled their children in a Saturday or Sunday morning language class know they have taken a step toward making sure the Vietnamese culture will not be lost, said executive director Steve Linh Nguyen.

"Many of the families have elders at home and they cannot communicate with the kids," Nguyen said. It becomes disheartening for many of them when they attend gatherings where Vietnamese is spoken fluently by adults and children alike, he said. At these type of events, Nguyen said he repeatedly hears the question, "How come my kids don't speak Vietnamese?"

Although there seems to be a natural desire for first-generation immigrant children to rebel against their parents and strive to be American in every way, Nguyen said his students are focused on learning.

"On the first day [of class], they may hate to come, but that goes away," he said.

Nguyen attributes the center's growing success to it's being independent of organizations that traditionally sponsor such programs. The nearly 60 other Vietnamese cultural programs in Orange County are tied to either a Buddhist or Roman Catholic congregation, he said.

"Many parents express satisfaction with the fact that [the center] is neutral. It's not religious or political," he said. "It's purely cultural."

Nguyen has plans to involve college-age students in the center. Recently, at a conference at UCLA, he met with several college students who lamented their former apathy toward their parents' culture.

"Now, they hear a sound from the inside [of themselves] to learn about their heritage," Nguyen said.

One of the next steps for the cultural center will be to offer language classes for all ages, he said.

Alex Murashko can be reached at (714) 966-5974.

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