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Westminster post office a vital hub for Vietnamese community

COLUMN ONE

Little Saigon branch has been helping the Vietnamese immigrant community adjust to the United States and maintain connections since the early '90s.

October 01, 2012|By Anh Do, Los Angeles Times
  • Postal employee Raymond Tran is a big reason for the popularity of the Little Saigon post office branch in Westminster among those in the Vietnamese American community.
Postal employee Raymond Tran is a big reason for the popularity of the Little… (Francine Orr, Los Angeles…)

If there's a place in this immigrant hub where all lives intersect, it's the Little Saigon post office.

The regulars, grandmothers and mothers who write letters to loved ones week after week greet one another as if at a reunion. The folks who don't earn enough to even have bank accounts wait next to patrons carrying $2,000 purses. Elders are allowed to go to the head of the line out of respect for their age. And single guys check P.O. boxes as regularly as soccer scores, because they don't get mail at their boardinghouses.

For those in the bustling Vietnamese community, the tiny post office in an aging Westminster strip mall is the village green. It's a port of information, a corner for chance meetings, a spot where customers are as likely to ask about the location of a good notary as they are the cost of overnight delivery.

Photos:  An unlikely hangout in Westminster

In the Internet age, nearly 10,000 transactions — including bill payments, love letters and care packages — still take place here each month, at a branch ranked in the nation's top three for selling overseas deliveries handled by FedEx.

The dimly lighted post office is squeezed between the Little Saigon Traffic School, a travel agency and a bikini bar. Inside, it's jammed. Customers balance boxes filled with exotic fruits or herbs to send to relatives or friends. Others catch up while waiting in lines that stretch to the doors, comparing the price of mangoes or the latest Vietnamese music videos.

Postal workers act as translators ("Uncle, you cannot send packages labeled UPS"), advisors ("Let me show you how you can save $2 for iced coffee") and family friends ("Seventh Sister, are you giving gifts to your daughter's child? She didn't graduate. How can she get into a good school?").

Some customers circle the cramped parking lot in their luxury cars and late-model sedans, waiting for a spot to open. Sometimes when they leave, they'll give elderly patrons a ride back to the bus stop so they can make their way home. Others pedal in and out on bikes.

"This is where they end up," postal worker Raymond Tran says of the immigrants who have poured into Little Saigon over the decades. "Business brings them here, but so do personal connections. And we'll be right where we are, getting to know them through the years."

Tran is something of an institution himself, assigned here since 1991. Nobody calls him by his last name. It's just Raymond. He's helped three generations of some families send out holiday cards or stay in touch when someone moves away. Children ask him for candy, and when they leave for college, he handles the care packages their families send. When they return, he reminds them to stay connected.

"We can be who you lean on," he tells them.

::

It's a new week, flaming hot, and customers fan their faces as they come in the door. Some hold infants, others rumpled cartons. "Raymond will tape it up. He always does," says one man who is sending novels and magazines to a friend in Ohio, where Vietnamese newsstands are rare.

Three workers are at the counter, and Tran stands at the far left window, his usual corner. One by one, folks surge forward.

"I need to send this to my brother in France. Is it very expensive?"

"What do you mean by 'certified'? What does that offer?"

"I don't know the ZIP Code. Can you look for Arizona?"

Tran's official title is sales and service associate, but, by any measure, he's the Answer Man, the goodwill ambassador. In addition to Vietnamese, he speaks Cantonese and Mandarin.

"Hello, sir," he greets Chau Nguyen, standing with his sister, Tien.

They appear with a crate of cuttlefish; lap xuong, a Chinese sausage; and gio, chunky pork rolls. It's headed for Houston, where relatives look forward to the treats.

Tran eyes the parcel. "Don't use that box," he says. "Use this box. Instead of paying $64.45, you only pay $39.95. But you will need to repack it. Very tightly."

The next customer steps forward.

"Miss," Tran starts, "do you know about these special stamps?"

He shows her a bold-colored sheet, splashed with the Breast Cancer Research Stamp, priced 11 cents higher than the standard first-class stamp. Who gets the surplus? The National Institutes of Health is one of the agencies getting the funds for academic study, he says.

"We sell a ton of these," Tran, 48, says. "Vietnamese women — they have so much heart. They know what it's like to suffer."

::

The tiny post office on Bolsa Avenue is so popular among its many immigrant customers that some will drive past other branches to get here, including the spacious one near the Westminster Mall.

And more than any of the others, the Little Saigon branch reflects the community around it, a slice of aging suburbia that underwent dramatic change when the Vietnam War ended and refugees streamed here.

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