Embracing the new, preserving the old 20 YEARS AFTER THE FALL

April 27, 1995|By Rafael Alvarez and Dan Thanh Dang | Rafael Alvarez and Dan Thanh Dang,Sun Staff Writers

It's a trick of balance that has forever vexed immigrants to this country: How to assimilate into a new culture while preserving the one they bring.

For the past 20 years -- since Saigon fell to the Communists on April 30, 1975 -- the Vietnamese have taken their turn at trying to preserve their identity in the American melting pot.

Setting up house, finding work and making ends meet have not overwhelmed them.

They have discovered that the real challenge is to hold their families together -- to remain Vietnamese even as they become American.

Hoa Phung Nguyen had to escape from a jungle concentration camp and survive days at sea without food for the privilege of living in Baltimore.

"In coming here, you have to make peace with this country and its people," says Mr. Nguyen, 55, a former South Vietnamese police officer who now supports his family by working in a greenhouse.

"The best place to do that was to live here in Baltimore.

"I knew there weren't many Vietnamese people here . . . but to live in a community like D.C. or Virginia, full of Vietnamese people, would be sheltering yourself in the Vietnamese community," he says.

"You would never open yourself up to American ways."

A generation ago, as the last Americans in Vietnam scrambled to escape that country, Vietnamese were an almost invisibly small minority in the United States.

Today, more than 800,000 are spread throughout the country, with the largest concentrations in Southern California, Northern Virginia and the gulf coast of Texas.

The immigrants reflect the country they left. They are the once-destitute, the once-well-to-do, political refugees, merchants, laborers, offspring of Vietnamese mothers and American soldiers.

By the year 2000, they are projected to become the third-largest Asian ethnic group in the United States, behind Chinese and Filipinos.

In the 1990 census, Maryland's Vietnamese population was 12th largest in the nation. As many as 20,000 Vietnamese reside in the state, split about equally between the Washington suburbs and metropolitan Baltimore.

Many of the Vietnamese -- and especially those who arrived in the first wave, 20 years ago -- are small business owners.

Many of those who arrived later, after surviving "re-education camps," have been laborers willing to take any available job.

Getting in step

As the United States and the stubborn nation where it waged war for 13 years slowly move toward normal relations, expatriates such as Hoa Nguyen try to get in step with what passes for normal in their new land.

"My children can do what they want to do in their lives, but they can never forget that we are Vietnamese inside," said Mr. Nguyen, whose two sons graduated from Patterson Senior High School.

"Even though my children [live] differently from me -- they eat too much meat and butter and listen to loud obnoxious music -- you accept it because of where you are."

Changes in diet, fashion and language are expected by newcomers. More troubling is the American notion that success is measured by keeping up with your neighbor.

It is almost impossible to attend a Vietnamese wedding or family event without encountering one or another couple speaking of its latest purchase or success: One family just bought a second house. One son just sent his parents on a trip to Europe.

But this competitive pride is relatively new.

Minh Tran, a Columbia accountant, blames America for equating success with possessions -- the idea that "the more you have, the better."

The drive for material success, he fears, will profoundly change the immigrants.

"This culture places so much emphasis on 'me' instead of 'we,' " says Mr. Tran, 38, whose family of 10 left Vietnam in 1975 on one of the last American helicopters from Saigon.

"They emphasize so much on the self."

The Rev. Thong Nguyen -- no relation to Hoa Nguyen; the surname is common among Vietnamese -- tells his parishioners at the Vietnamese Catholic Community Church in Rosedale: "If you want to stay close to your family, don't work so much. Don't always look for the overtime."

But that advice is easier given than followed, according to Can Vu, a leader of the parish council and a forklift operator at the Lever Brothers factory on Holabird Avenue.

In America, said Mr. Vu: "You are always looking up to see who is ahead of you. You are always seeing that you are poorer than somebody else."

His wife, Mary, works about 30 hours a week in a hair salon. Of their four children, three are still in college.

To pay the rent, educate their children and send money to relatives in Vietnam, every family member contributes to the household's income -- because the success of one person is a success for all.

"In many ways, the Vietnamese experience is perhaps the most unique and difficult of any refugee group who has come to America," says Lois Vietri, a University of Maryland professor who teaches about the legacies of the Vietnam War.

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