by Andrew Lam
(PNS) LOS ANGELES -- I am sitting in a small, comfortable bus going north, with two old Vietnamese ladies next to me bragging about their grandchildren. Behind me, two middle-aged men talk about their youth during the Vietnam War. Vietnamese voices rise and fall; I close my eyes, listen. I could be heading north to Hanoi from Saigon.
Except, I am not. I am on the other side of the Pacific, on my way to San Jose from Orange County, going up Interstate 5 in a bus owned by one of three competing Vietnamese companies that cater to Vietnamese Americans living in California.
Brand new and much more comfortable than your regular Greyhound -- we even get Vietnamese-style sandwiches for lunch -- the bus is one of many bloodlines connecting Vietnamese communities in California and beyond. We've come a long way since the first wave of refugees arrived in 1975 at the end of the Vietnam War, a huddled mass wearing donated clothes, frantically looking for homes, for jobs.
In "Tribes," author Joel Kotkin described the emergence of cosmopolitan global tribes, defining them as international communities that combine a strong sense of a common origin with "two critical factors for success in the modern world: geographic dispersion and a belief in scientific progress." Kotkin's primary examples included the Jews, Chinese, and Indians. These groups, relying on mutual dependence and trust, created global networks that allowed them "to function collectively beyond the confines of national or regional borders."
In later writings, Kotkin added Vietnamese to the list.
Nearly 3 million Vietnamese have fled abroad and scattered into five different continents since the war ended on April 30, 1975. These days, you can find Vietnamese restaurants in South Africa, Brazil and Morocco. I personally have relatives living in six different countries on three continents. But almost half of the Diaspora ended up in North America, and the largest portion of that population resettled in California.
Open a Vietnamese yellow pages phone book Orange County or San Jose these days and you'll be astounded by how organized the various Little Saigons are. Even in today's shaky economy, the Vietnamese American community is thriving. From law to dentist offices, from restaurants to computer programming training centers, from private schools to car rental agencies to real estate, from funeral services to wedding planning to garage mechanics, a Vietnamese has an array of Vietnamese enterpreneurs at his beck and call.
Vietnamese immigrants in California's Silicon Valley form the second-largest Vietnamese community in America after Orange County, and have turned Kotkin's "belief in scientific progress" into a kind of religion. "Vietnamese have greatly benefited from the high-tech boom since the early 1980s," says Chung Chuong, a professor of Vietnamese American studies at San Francisco City College. For an immigrant population with low language skills but a strong desire to succeed, the best route is to become technicians.
"Back in the '80s, you could get trained for less than six months and make enough money working over time to buy a house after a few years," Chuong says.
Nam Nguyen, editor-in-chief of Vietnamese language Calitoday newspaper, one of the largest Vietnamese-language papers in Northern California, agrees. "The strategy doesn't end there, of course. We adults tell our kids to study, and study hard -- the sciences, especially. Vietnamese put education above all else."
Nguyen adds, "The Information age is far more important to Vietnamese than the Industrial Revolution."
So while some native-born Americans may blame technology -- the ATM, automated gas pumps, the home shopping network -- for breaking down community and family ties, many Asian immigrants will tell you it has often had the reverse effect.
Not long ago the ocean was vast, homesickness was an incurable malady and the immigrant had little more than memories to keep cultural ties alive. Today, years after the end of the Cold War, the borders are porous, and jumbo jets have shrunk the oceans. With new communication technologies -- desktop publishing, cell phones, Internet, VCR and DVD -- a Vietnamese living abroad can generate and disseminate his own media and connect to his far-flung clan.
F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote that the test of a first-rate intelligence is "the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function." Vietnamese face this challenge. Become ruled by memories, and you cannot change and adapt. Forget your past and you won't have a community to fall back on, nor a sense of your own history.
Nam Nguyen said that the Vietnamese myth of the birth of their nation should be revized. It's a story all Vietnamese schoolchildren learn. In an ancient time, a dragon married a fairy, who gave birth to 100 eggs. The eggs hatched and became the Vietnamese people.
A new Vietnamese is being "hatched" abroad, Nguyen says, beyond the homeland. Who he is nobody knows, for he is not yet described in any Vietnamese myths or literature.
But I've seen him. He's Eric, my little nephew, surfing the Web while his grandparents watch Chinese martial art videos dubbed in Vietnamese. Nearby, the ancestral altar wafts incense. On the computer screen, images of a Japanese video game shift and flow. Just 10 years old, Eric is very much at home with all these conflicting ideas, dissimilar languages and sensibilities.
Ask him what he wants to do when he grows up and he shrugs. "A violinist. Or, maybe an astronaut," he answers matter-of-factly. Yet, go back three generations and he stands knee deep in mud in his rice fields, gawking at the moon and stars.
No more. His energy is free from the grip of land-bound imagination. For Eric, the moon may very well be possible. And may he inherit many more homelands and languages as he journeys far beyond the Golden State.
May 3, 2005 (http://www.albionmonitor.com) All Rights Reserved. Contact email@example.com for permission to use in any format.
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