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Vestiges of Vietnam: Gathering Stories of the Refugee Experience

Editor’s Note: The Library of Virginia, in partnership with Virginia Humanities, sponsors residential fellows during the academic year to conduct in-depth research in the Library’s collections. An independent scholar from Arlington, Kim O’Connell spent the spring working on a forthcoming project The Saving Grace of Spring Rolls: A Story of Food, Place, and Family.

The author's parents on their wedding day. Courtesy of Kim O'Connell. “No single story can capture the diaspora’s experiences,” wrote the Vietnamese author and Pulitzer Prize winner Viet Thanh Nguyen, speaking of the mass exodus from Vietnam after the fall of Saigon in April 1975. This is one reason that, as a Virginia Humanities fellow, I’ve been gathering a range of stories about the Vietnamese immigrant and refugee experience here in Virginia.

Another reason involves my family. My mother, Huong, was born in Vietnam and met my father Dennis during the war. She had been hired by the U.S. Army to teach Vietnamese to American soldiers, and my father, then working in Army Intelligence with the U.S. Special Forces, was in her class. After a short courtship, they married on the military base in Okinawa, Japan, and he brought her back to America, where I was born. Immigrating via marriage, my mother was not a refugee, but in her own way she was driven by war from one life into another. By telling her story, I hope to better understand my own Vietnamese heritage and culture, and that of others as well.

Collecting stories takes many forms, and in that vein, the Library of Virginia has offered fascinating avenues and inspiration for my research. The Library’s collection of federal records, for example, yielded several congressional reports from the mid-1970s illustrating how the U.S. government grappled with the question of what it owed postwar refugees from Southeast Asia. Despite the protests and divisiveness that characterized the Vietnam War era, members of Congress from both sides of the aisle spoke with empathy about the plight of refugees. “Many of us, in Congress and in the executive branch, have differed in the past… [on] the overall wisdom of the policy pursued by the last six U.S. Presidents in Indochina,” stated Republican Senator Charles Mathias during an April 1975 Judiciary Committee hearing. “But I believe that we, and the American people, are united in our desire to help the innocent victims of the war and instability that has gripped Indochina for so long.”

Vietnamese writer Phuong Tran Nguyen, author of the book Becoming Refugee American, ascribes this widespread feeling to “profound guilt” over having abandoned its role in the war effort, along with international pressure for the U.S. to make it right. So America opened its doors. By 1980, about 245,000 Vietnamese immigrants lived in this country, more than 90 percent of whom had arrived within the previous five years. Major populations settled in southern California, Texas, Louisiana, and Virginia.

Vietnamese refugees often faced what sociologist Ruben Rumbaut called a “double crisis.” They had to deal with the issues of survival and acclimation faced by all immigrants, but as refugees, they felt a greater sense of loss, having left behind their community, homes, social or professional standing, friends and family members, under duress. Once in the United States, many Vietnamese wondered how they could reconcile both parts of their identity, as Vietnamese and as Americans—a struggle I could relate to. In 1977, a Vietnamese Catholic priest in Virginia likened it to “catching two fish with two hands,” after an old Vietnamese proverb.

Once in the United States, Vietnamese refugees often set up commercial enclaves to establish livelihoods and make important cultural connections. In Richmond, for example, Vietnamese refugees first settled in the western suburbs of Henrico County, particularly in the Crestview neighborhood. This area became a hub of southeast Asian immigrants after the war, with affordable apartments and an elementary school that offered English as a Second Language classes. Crestview also encompassed the Vietnamese and other Asian restaurants and stores that opened in that area beginning in the 1980s, including the Tan A Market, Far East Oriental Grocery, and Mekong.

The Library’s database of the Richmond Times-Dispatch proved fruitful for accounts of this changing time in Virginia’s recent history. “We love it here because we work, we save money,” one Vietnamese Crestview resident told the newspaper in the early 1980s. In Vietnam, the resident continued, “you never knew what would happen. [Here] we feel better when we sleep…don’t have to worry about crime, don’t have to worry about anything.” Several settlement organizations in Virginia generally and in Richmond in particular either established themselves to serve this population or expanded their mission to do so, including the Virginia Council of Churches, the Virginia Cooperative Extension Service, World Relief Refugee Services, and the Catholic Diocese of Richmond. As a Times-Dispatch article put it, “It’s not South Florida, or even Northern Virginia. But Henrico County is a hot spot for immigrants.”

Archives and databases have been essential to my research, but so have personal interviews with former Vietnamese refugees, for whom the act of leaving home is a searing memory brought easily to mind even more than 40 years later. While in Richmond, I interviewed a local Vietnamese woman named Thu Le Pham, who sits on the board of the Asian American Society of Central Virginia (AASoCV). Le Pham told me that she was three months pregnant when she and her husband escaped during the fall of Saigon. Unfortunately, because of the perils of her journey, in which she transferred from one boat to another, going hours and then days without adequate food, water, or privacy, she lost the pregnancy. She then underwent a medical procedure in the Philippines in a medical center that was not set up for obstetrics, without anesthesia. “I have so many stories,” she said to me, and we plan to continue our conversation in the future.

I also interviewed AASoCV’s outreach director, Zeistina Khan, originally from Indonesia. She convened an emotional and revealing dinner for me and several of the society’s women board members, who represented almost all of their member countries, including Vietnam—something they had never actually done outside of society business. We spent hours at the dinner, going around the table as the women told their sometimes harrowing, sometimes hopeful stories of leaving their homelands and eventually finding their way to Virginia and to Richmond. I told my mother’s story, too. I am happy to report that these women are now planning bimonthly dinners to continue sharing their stories. I will keep collecting stories as well—not to divine a single answer about what it means to be an immigrant or refugee, but as a reminder that we should never stop asking.

 

—Kim O’Connell, 2019 spring Virginia Humanities Research Fellow

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