A Generation Takes Root on New Soil
Young Vietnamese Americans Celebrate Their Adopted Land
By Laura Sessions Stepp
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 11, 2004; Page C01
They call themselves "The 1.5 generation," the young men and women from Vietnamese families who have grown up in the United States since the fall of Saigon in 1975. Last night, several hundred of them, along with older Vietnamese Americans, threw a $1,000-a-plate black-tie dinner at the Capital Hilton to announce, as only a glitzy Washington party can, that they are a social and political force to be reckoned with.
When the parents of these twenty- and thirty-somethings fled Vietnam on boats and settled in this country with little more than the clothes on their backs, they told themselves it was temporary. Someday, they'd move back home.
A generation and a half later, their children obviously have no such intention. From the six American flags on the dais to the Robert Mondavi wine on the table to Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta's speech, the Vietnamese American National Gala -- the first of its kind, according to its promoters -- was a toast to the United States, pure and simple, an announcement that these young men and young women intend to stay and flourish here.
In their program and on their Web site, www.vangusa.com
, the organizers touted more than 100 highly successful Vietnamese Americans including Lance Cpl. Andrew Dang, a Marine who died two months ago in Iraq; Monica Tran, a vice president with Giorgio Armani; and Navia Nguyen, the first Asian model to appear in a Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue. (Now that's making it in America.)
Six Vietnamese Americans were given Golden Torch Awards, including Dat Nguyen, linebacker with the Dallas Cowboys; Eugene Trinh, the first Vietnamese American astronaut; and Trung Dung, CEO of Fogbreak Software.
Throughout the evening, young non-celebrities talked among themselves about how grateful they were to be living in this country even if in less-exalted status. Phu Nguyen, a recent graduate of California State University-Fullerton, played football at a Catholic high school in Santa Ana and listened to country music with his friends. He took his life for granted, he said, until he went to Saigon after high school and saw for the first time "prostitutes, drug addicts, kids sleeping on the streets. I feel so fortunate."
Linh Ho, a student at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, had the same experience when she lived for six months in Hanoi during her undergraduate years. "I would play soccer with the boys over there, and the girls would ask me how I learned to do that," said Ho, a varsity athlete in high school.
Thuc Le, a graduate student in biophysics at the University of Chicago, came here with his parents at the age of 16 and had to learn that it was acceptable to speak his mind about world events. His father had been a member of the former government in South Vietnam. "It took me a while to realize my dad would not go to prison if I had an opinion."
The hard part has not been learning how to be American, they said. The hard part has been figuring out how to stay Vietnamese. As youngsters in school, "we were taught that George Washington was the father of our country," Le said, "but our parents were saying the father of our country was King Hung, whose dynasty ruled what is now Vietnam for almost 2,000 years."
Phuong Tu, a student at the University of California-Santa Cruz, listens to music in English in her dorm while missing Vietnamese lyrics "that have so much more emotion."
The only complaint some of these young people who had embraced America had about last night's event was that it wasn't Vietnamese enough.
Vietnamese entertainer Duyen Nguyen sang "The Star-Spangled Banner" but not the Vietnamese national anthem, Phu Nguyen pointed out to Thuc Le. There was no Vietnamese flag on the dais.
Nguyen and Le wondered out loud: Could it be that, in light of the Patriot Act, events in Iraq and the presidential campaign, the event's organizers wanted there to be no question of where their loyalties lie?
"We can be happy we've 'arrived' in America, but let's not forget where we came from," said Nguyen. He paused, unsure whether he should have been so vocal until reminded that he was, indeed, in America.