Like graceful poppy flowers their slender bodies sway to the music of the dance. They smile as they glide along with the wailing sounds that take them and their elders back to a far-away land. As the dance ends, the young girls* slim hands symbolically reconstruct that land with three painted building blocks. It’s an image only, but for a moment it’s real. Together with their elders, the girls have returned to Vietnam, the land they love and may never sec again. They have come together to talk, relax, and enjoy their culture during a recent entertainment night at San Diego State University.
It’s been two years since the Vietnam war disappeared from American television screens and newspapers. For millions of Americans it is now history. For most of San Diego’s 13,000 Vietnam refugees it is still a bitter reality.
They have adjusted to their new life, yes. Their bodies eat. sleep, and work in America; not very well, perhaps, but “thank you very much for asking, we are fine,” they will tell you. One has to go back again and again to discern what they are really thinking.
“The refugees’ reality is over here, but their minds are back home, says Pham Quang Tuan, adviser of the Vietnamese Community Foundation. He is the oldest son of the 11-member Pham family, a Vietnamese refugee family now living in San Diego.
“My people live in two worlds.” says Tuan. “They still see their loved ones in their nightmares and fear for their lives. Whenever Vietnamese get together, all they talk about is their homeland and how much they want to go back. They often cry in private and show symptoms of depression. Some have fallen mentally ill.”
Adjustment for the youngest is easiest. Most of them attend public schools and colleges. They are learning fast; their English is improving; their future may be bright.
But how does one begin a new life at 507 Tuan’s father. Pham Nu Bich, is 50. He has been trying for almost two years. He is still trying. Till April 29, 1975, the date of South Vietnam’s unconditional surrender, Bich was a successful businessman. In fact, he was rich. He was the president of three major corporations and had an income of $15,000 a month. He owned a large home in Saigon and several European cars.
His wife, Nhu, had servants. The couple's two eldest sons were studying in the United States. There was little to worry about.
Bich’s wealth was not inherited. He had worked 19 years to earn it. In 1954. after the Geneva Agreement, he had fled with his wife and two young sons from North to South Vietnam to build a new existence. In 1975 he fled again. On April 29 that year, with half an hour's notice. Bich gathered his family and left house, cars, and money behind.
On June 7, 1975, after stops in the Philippines, Guam, and Arkansas, he arrived in San Diego with his “extended" family of 32. After an eventful six-week voyage which shuffled them from camp to camp, they had reached their final destination.
Like more than 130.000 of their compatriots, the Pham family was stateless. Every one of them was “an alien” who has fled from and cannot return to Vietnam because of fear of persecution . . ." according to the Department of Health. Education, and Welfare, the agency responsible for the Vietnamese.
Why did the Phams flee? In 1954, for not being able to get ahead. In 1975. out of fear of Communist retribution.
“They (the Communists) would have killed us.” Bich says in halting English. “Maybe not out in the streets. We would have died slowly in their camps. Americans don’t know this. The Communists have concentration camps throughout the mountains in Vietnam. We heard people die from lack of medical care and clothing.”
Bich is not working now. The fluent Chinese. Japanese, and French he speaks in addition to his native Vietnamese are of little help to him; he has to learn English to find a job. After 18 weeks of instruction, he speaks it quite well, but he is apologetic that it isn’t better. Bich is now training under a refugee assistance educational program to become a bookkeeper. But he is willing to take almost any job.
“I can only hope to find a job—at any salary," he says. “If I find a job . . .” His eyes are forlorn. In the traditional Vietnamese sense. Bich has lost face. He is not able to support his family. Instead, his days are filled with going back to school, driving his children to classes, taking care of the house, or taking his wife shopping.
“I did not want to go (leave home).’’ he says. “I’m really sad. But I am more happy than other Vietnamese. I still have my wife and children."
In addition to Bich. his wife, and six children, the Pham household consists of Bich's 84-year-old mother. one grandchild, Bich's two sisters, and the children's long-time nurse. The other members of the "extended” family now live in separate households. There are no servants now, and all of the older women—none of whom speaks English work hard to cook, wash, and clean for the large family. “They don’t complain." says Tuan. “But they feel like strangers and have aged a lot."
It is on the inner strength and love of their three oldest children tl^at the Pham family heavily relies for financial and moral support. To all of the children, the benefit of their family is more important that personal wants or desires.
Tuan, 26. who is also a graduate student at San Diego State University. works as a federal contract compliance monitor for the San Diego Urban League. He now earns most of the family’s money. He and his brother, Vy, 25, have been living in the United States for 11 years. Together with their sister. Lien, they bring home a combined income of SI.600 a month.
Vy, who dropped out of his graduate program at SDSU when his family arrived in the United States, is now an insurance salesman. Lien is a community aide for the San Diego City Schools. All three speak fluent English.
Though their standard of living is much lower than it was in Vietnam, the Phams fare better than the majority of their fellow refugees. The 11-year savings of their two oldest sons enabled them to buy a spacious four-bedroom house close to SDSU. And while their social life is limited to a few events within the Vietnamese community, they cherish their evening meals together and like to watch television. To them it’s a window to the outside world; it brings them closer to a language and culture which are still a riddle to most of them.
“When we first came, we found the food, people, and habits very strange." Bich said. “People here are always smiling. We don’t do that in Vietnam. But neighbors here are like strangers. In Vietnam we are very close.
“The father is the head of the household. He decides how the house should be run. He teaches his children. Whatever he wants, the mother does. Once married, the woman stays at home. Girls usually marry when they are 18 or 19. They move into the house of their husbands and parents-in-law. In Vietnam we therefore say, *a daughter is not your child.’ "
Lien got married at 18. but she does not totally fit the traditional picture—at least not anymore. She has shocked her parents by filing for divorce in this country, an action considered shameful in Vietnam.
“A Vietnamese wife is expected to bear her burden, no matter how bad her husband," Lien, now 24, explains. “Many times my husband was unfaithful to me and mistreated me. I wanted to leave him a long time ago. but decided to wait till we came to this country.
“I had to fight for this with my parents, but my father understands now. In Vietnam divorce is rare and hard to obtain. It takes three years to become final.”
Lien relishes her new freedom as a woman. Pert, energetic, and outspoken, she enjoys driving her car wherever she wants and entering and leaving the house at her pleasure. Although she jokes about it, she describes her early life in Vietnam as that of a prisoner.
“Vietnamese girls of good families are overly protected." she says. “We were not even permitted to stand at the gate of our house. Wherever we went we had to be accompanied or driven and picked up. Never were we allowed to go out with just one girlfriend. To me this was really frustrating since I went to an American high school where the environment was very open."
Lien, who worked as an announcer and disc jockey at an American radio station in Saigon, was the driving force in evacuating her family.
“Through my job I learned about the political developments ahead of time.” she recalls. “My boss predicted we would have to evacuate by late April, 1975. He had a map of Vietnam in his office. Each province that fell to the Communists, he marked black. During the final days, it seemed like he marked one black every day.
“For two months I was scared to death. I stopped talking on my show, just played music. When I told my parents they would have to get ready to leave, they didn’t believe me; we had a big fight. They said I was talking propaganda.
“Finally, many family members began gathering in my parents' house. We waited for two weeks. Then the call came. All of us had to leave at half an hour’s notice. I was so crazy with fear and high from excitement. I didn’t care about anything but my life.”
The Pham’s three youngest children are still going to school. Chi is a 19-year-old freshman at Grossmont College; Dai. the youngest son. is 14 and a ninth grader at Horace Mann Junior High School. Both are shy and softspoken and miss their Vietnamese friends. Cue. called “Cookie” by her family, is 18 and the family beauty. With large, expressive eyes, pearly teeth, and classic features, she is also the most outspoken of the younger family members.
“When I first came here. I felt very lonely and sad.” she says in fluent English (she learned from an American friend in Vietnam). “I always thought. I'm just a refugee. I ran away from the Communists. The kids here thought I was Japanese. Some didn't know what Vietnamese were.”
While the Phams' experience in San Diego is a modest success story in the struggling Vietnamese community, hundreds of families are still more than struggling. Of the approximately 13,000 refugees now living in San Diego County, at least 10 percent are on public assistance, according to Ngoc L. Phung. director of the Indochinese Service Center. The center, which was founded in October. 1976, provides low-income Vietnamese with information and assistance on housing, medical services, and job and education problems. It also furnishes escort services, translations, and transportation help.
“The problem of most Vietnamese is not only that they are not employed, but also that they are underemployed.” said Ngoc, a former professor at the Polytechnical University of Vietnam in Saigon.
According to the 1976 HEW report, more than 30 percent of the refugees are professionals; the others are distributed among the clerical, sales, service, and trade occupations. Only a small fraction of the Vietnamese are unskilled laborers. The average income of a refugee lies between $2.50 and $5 an hour, according to HEW. It often takes more than the husband to support one family. According to the report, language is one of the major handicaps the Vietnamese face; it hindered the majority of Vietnamese doctors and dentists from passing the professional exams of the United States.
But there have also been complaints of broken contracts, discrimination in hiring and education, and of sponsors or employers withholding wages. According to Ngoc and Tuan, they received reports of incidents where local employers withheld the refugee’s first paycheck.
“In the beginning, some employers hired Vietnamese under the condition of a one-month unpaid training period." says Tuan. “Some were let go after the first month."
“We are a powerless minority," says Dr. Pham Kim Vinh, a Vietnamese political scientist and author, whose name was high on the blacklist of the Vietnamese Communists and the Nguyen Van Thieu regime. “Everybody can take advantage of a refugee."
An editor, journalist, attorney, and former military leader. Dr. Vinh is the intellectual and moral pillar of his community. Two days after arriving in San Diego as a refugee, he began his tenth book. The Politics of Selfishness. Vietnam— The Past as Prologue. He describes the book, which he recently published. as an insider's view of the causes and results of the Vietnam war.
“I want to bring to the knowledge of the whole world the selfishness of Indochinese politics." he says. "When life collapsed in South Vietnam, life went on as usual in Washington and the rest of the free world. I want to remind the world that far from Washington and California there were people who deserved to live in an open and free society.
“Kissinger's formula did not mean peace or victory, but a camouflaged withdrawal. After that. America is still America, but only we know what it did to the lives of the Vietnamese people. To America the Vietnamese war was far more important than the lives of the Vietnamese people."
The refugees’ legal status (parolees from a foreign country) prevents them from obtaining federal or county jobs (which make up about 60 percent of all jobs in San Diego County), Ngoc states. If Congress does not change the parolee status, some Vietnamese may have to wait up to 30 years to be admitted under the “conditional entry" provisions. Unless Congress extends a period of grace, the refugees will no longer be eligible for public assistance after September of this year. If no matching funds (totalling S10,000) can be found by this month, Ngoc claims. San Diego's Vietnamese Service Center will have to close its doors. This will affect mostly those refugees who are in greatest need—the old. the unskilled, and the uneducated.
“For those who don't expect too much, the future may be bright." says Dr. Vinh. “For those who cannot forget their glorious past in Vietnam, the future will be hard. I believe we have a chance if we are not abandoned."
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