Vietnamese reconnect at camp

REDISCOVERING THEIR HERITAGE

June 28, 1993|By Dan Thanh Dang | Dan Thanh Dang,Staff Writer

Nick Ton started forgetting how to read and write in his native language around the fourthgrade, and soon after he started forgetting bits and pieces of his culture and history as well.

Like many other Vietnamese who have lived in the United States for a long time, Nick Ton adapted so well to American culture that his native country became a distant picture. English became his first language and Vietnamese, his second. The United States was his home.

Now, at age 19, Mr. Ton is determined not to lose his "other half."

Along with 119 other students and alumni from high schools, colleges and universities in the Middle Atlantic area, he had the opportunity to share experiences at a Vietnamese Heritage Camp in the Catoctin Mountain Park over the weekend.

Sponsored by the Vietnamese Cultural Society of Metropolitan Washington, Hung Van Le, who left Vietnam in the late 1970s, started the camp four years ago to provide Vietnamese-American youths a place to interact and discover -- and rediscover -- their heritage.

"When I first came here at the age of seven, I thought Vietnamese was the only language in the world," said Mr. Ton, who lives in Silver Spring and attends the University of Maryland at College Park. "I know I'm very Americanized now, and I know I've lost a lot of my Vietnamese characteristics, but not so much to say that I'm not Vietnamese anymore.

"After a while, I realized that no matter how much you speak like an American and dress like and American, your blood is still Vietnamese. I think it's important that we don't forget that," he said.

"Some have lived here all their lives, know mostly American culture and speak mostly English," said Mr. Le, 32, an electrical engineer for the U.S. Army who founded the cultural society in 1989. "Some of them have never been in a big crowd of Vietnamese people like this."

Campers attended a geography session conducted by Tuan Q. Pham, vice president of Riggs National Bank of Washington, who taught them that the city of Hue is known for its architecture, famous poets and romantic atmosphere, while the South is known for its rich and fertile lands.

They also learned about the different inflections and tones of voice used in various regions of Vietnam in a session on traditional Vietnamese music conducted by Kim-Oanh T. Nguyen, a musician and instructor.

Campers were immersed in their heritage through traditional Vietnamese games, talent performances and songs. They ate Vietnamese food and lived in dorms named after four regions of Vietnam -- Ai Nam Quan, Song Bach Dang, Song Ben Hai and Mui Ca Mau. Last year, the dorms were named after the cities of Hanoi, Dalat, Hue and Saigon -- the latter, notably, not referred to by its postwar name, Ho Chi Minh City.

Because of the large population of Vietnamese in the Baltimore-Washington area and the camp's growing popularity, more than 50 people had to be turned away, said Hung Tri Le, the cultural society's president who fled Vietnam during the fall of Saigon.

"We use the Vietnamese 'choi va hoc' method [play and learn] by creating an enriching and fun environment so that they want to learn," said Mr. Le, an engineer for IBM. "After we get them excited by their own culture, they will go off on their own, learn more about it and share it with their surrounding community.

"Many young Asians have an identity problem that some would call the 'Banana Syndrome,' " Mr. Le said. "White on the inside and yellow on the outside. You grow up thinking you're an American, but you tend to forget that your exterior is still Asian.

tTC "It's hard to grow up like that when you're not sure whether you're an American or an Asian," Mr. Le said.

"Many of the campers are here to preserve and learn about their heritage," he added. "Here at camp, we help build that root by helping them accept their identity and learn their heritage."

During a peer discussion session, campers talked about the problems posed by growing up Vietnamese in the United States, dating across racial lines, and the communication gap between generations -- with older Vietnamese who have stronger mental ties to their homeland, and are strict in child rearing.

"Since I wasn't born in Vietnam and since I go to a school where there's only one other Vietnamese person," said 15-year-old Tuan Dang Nguyen, "I thought it was important that I go to this camp."

The New Jersey youth, who prefers to be called Eric, added, "I thought I would totally lose the culture and I was afraid my kids in the future would grow up totally Americanized. I didn't want that to happen."

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