For Nhu-Ngoc Ong, an aspiring social scientist, the trip back to Vietnam was the first step toward achieving her goal of becoming an expert on issues in her native land.
The 24-year-old UC Irvine graduate student spent a month in Hanoi, the nation's capital, training researchers for a groundbreaking public survey of political and social attitudes in the country that Ong left a decade earlier to emigrate to California.
Nothing of the sort had ever been done in Vietnam--surveying citizens of the Communist country for their views on everything from the need for societal reform (54% want stronger reform measures) to the relative merits of privately owned versus government-run businesses (81% favor private ownership.)
Ong, who moved with her family to Irvine when she was 14, said she was surprised neither by what the survey revealed nor by the skepticism with which the survey's findings were greeted by her fellow expatriates in Orange County, which has the largest concentration of Vietnamese immigrants in America.
"I'm skeptical, too, as a social scientist," Ong said. "But it's the first glimpse into what the Vietnamese people think, what they want and what they do."
When the survey was unveiled last week, scholars and Vietnamese American journalists questioned the poll extensively, especially findings that most Vietnamese were happy with their situation and expressed a high degree of confidence in the country's Communist government.
The Vietnamese refugee community remains staunchly anti-Communist, Ong said, and is understandably skeptical of a poll finding that their countrymen who have remained under Communist rule could be satisfied with their lot in life.
"They've been taught to be skeptical," said Ong, "which is great, because it stimulates discussion. I just want to collect information and stimulate this . . . knowledge."
She said some questions on the survey, which UC Irvine's Center for the Study of Democracy has overseen in more than 50 countries over the last two decades, had to be revised slightly to gain the approval of province leaders in Vietnam.
In addition to her studies at UC Irvine, Ong is active in the community, coordinating cultural events at annual Lunar New Year festivals, giving piano performances and editing Non Song Magazine, a bimonthly publication that focuses on issues affecting Vietnamese American college students.
"As the Vietnamese saying goes, 'If I'm busy enough, I won't think of evil things,' " Ong said jokingly.
After she and her family arrived in America in 1992, her parents worked odd jobs to support Ong and her younger brother. Later, when Ong began attending college, she got part-time jobs to help out with the family's bills.
Her passion is to bring about change in Vietnam.
She said her "ignorance overall of how the Vietnamese think" and the shortage of Vietnam experts in the largest Vietnamese emigre community led her to pursue politics and social science.
"This is just the first step," Ong said of her survey work. "If everyone shut their door and stayed inside their house and didn't have any exchanges with the outside world, then whatever you have inside the house is what you have."